The inconvenient truth about CONCACAF Champions League

Also file under: Things I wish were different

The CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals begin tonight, and I have just one itty-bitty question for you loyal Daily Soccer Fix readers:  Do you even know what this heavily acronym-ed beast, this CONCACAF Champions League thingy, is in the first place?

It’s one of the high ironies of the domestic soccer landscape. Clubs involved make a big ol’ honkin’ deal about Champions League.   (I don’t blame them for that, by the way.)  The soccer establishment wants you to care. (Yes, I suppose I’m an instrument of The Man in this way, which is why you can see my preview of the four quarterfinal series here.) And, I suppose the hard core among the hard cores certainly care.

But U.S. soccer supporters at large? Uh … not so much.

For instance, if I walk into a sports bar tonight anywhere in our great country (anywhere not called “Columbus” or “Salt Lake City,” that is) and ask if they’ll kindly put on the CONCACAF Champions League contest, they’ll look at me I’m wearing a full Captain Jack Sparrow pirate outfit. They'd sit me in a little corner, hand me a glass of water and whisper about hoping that I don't hurt myself. 

It’s about overall awareness, about history and about what people in Office Space culture would call “brand equity.” Long story short, CONCACAF Champions League has very little of it. Any of it. Little history. Little general awareness. And little brand equity.

That’s the irony. There’s a yawning disconnect between what MLS clubs consider important and what the sporting public at large considers important.

Consider these lines from this piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, where ace soccer reporter Michael C. Lewis is always on top of things: 

“It’s a huge, huge opportunity for us to really make a name for ourselves,” coach Jason Kreis said.

Team officials have been targeting the tournament for months, carefully juggling lineups and plotting strategies throughout an unprecedented thicket of games last year, in order to advance through the group stage to the quarterfinals that start Tuesday night. During the offseason, they re-signed leading scorer Alvaro Saborio at least in part so he would be available to help them against the Crew.

 

And yet, unless you live in Columbus or Salt Lake City AND you are a big soccer fan, you have little knowledge of any of this. And you probably have even less of what I call “Give a crap.”  I like Kreis and greatly respect his managerial abilities.  But I don’t agree about “making a name,” for themselves.

I suppose a few more fans around the world will know about Real Salt Lake if the club can march successfully on the FIFA Club World Cup.  But that’s still a long way off.  Besides, what does that really mean?  Short of a highly unlikely win in the Club World Cup, would a mere appearance there really help RSL sell significantly more season tickets?  Will it help the club get that long-delayed training facility built any faster?  Will new sponsors come rushing forward waving fists full of cash? Will it significantly increase the value of future MLS national TV contracts? These are the boots-on-the-ground elements that truly matter.

I keep hearing that this could be bigger than an MLS championship, and I just think that’s poppycock. Because there IS legitimate value in the marketplace for a league championship.  That’s what our culture knows.  That’s the way our sporting world operates.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that’s the way it is in 2011.

This disconnect was once the undoing of a ranking official in U.S. Soccer. Doug Logan was the first MLS commissioner. He did some good, he did some bad. (Sunil Gulati was the more powerful figure, pushing levers behind the curtain and such, but that’s another story.) But Logan got himself in a nasty bind when he blasted ESPN and major media platforms back in 1998, when D.C. United prevailed in … wait for it … the InterAmerican Cup.  Heard of it? Probably not.  Especially as it no longer exists.

D.C. United defeated Brazil’s Vasco de Gama (the soccer team, not the Portuguese explorer) that year. On D.C. United’s website, it’s still written up as “ … one of the greatest triumphs in the history of U.S. soccer, United posted a continental double and earned the right to the title of "Champions of the Americas" with a victory in the Interamerican Cup.”

It was a swell achievement for a good D.C. United team, one steered ably by some legitimately talented figures, with Marco Etcheverry at the helm.  But the media world yawned and Logan went apoplectic about it, admonishing any and all who dared not put the “big news” above the fold, so to speak.

“It's unconscionable what happened on Saturday night and Sunday,” Logan said at the time. “We're not going to sit quietly while our fans are ignored . . . From this weekend (on), I'm not going to be polite anymore.”

Logan really beat up on ESPN’s SportsCenter, which didn’t even mention United achievement. The announcers, he chided, “were too busy preparing their sarcastic one-liners.”

While he certainly had a point, Logan was demonstrating a stunning degree of naiveté about the way of the world. It was all a bit embarrassing and hastened his push overboard.  Don Garber would soon inherit the MLS commissioner’s post.

The point is, Logan was so incredibly bent out of shape that media outlets wouldn’t cover this “historic event” … a historic event that is so deeply ensconced in American sports lore that even the most diehard soccer fans (outside of Washington, D.C.) have no idea it ever took place.  See, these things aren’t “big news” and aren’t “historic” because you say so.  They either are or aren’t … and the public at large decides.

Now …

Here’s something else from Lewis’ preview in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.

“It kind of gets us on a level with these other teams in these big soccer countries,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “It’s pretty neat to be a part of that, and if we can get past this, we would be one step closer to maybe playing the Barcelonas and AC Milans, the big-name teams. ... We feel like we can do well. We’ll just give it our all and hopefully it’s good enough.”

Beckerman’s words do provide the twist that could change things … or at least move things in a direction. If an MLS side can, one day, win this thing and find itself in the FIFA Club World Cup, it could do big things to the overall awareness.  I didn’t say “appear,” I said “win.”  Or even get all the way to a semifinal against a name club from Europe. That could do something … but it’s a long, long way off.

Until then, well, I’ll be watching tonight. Maybe you will, too.

But at the end of the day, most soccer fans in the United States won’t be. I wish it were different, but that’s the way it is today.

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