The CONCACAF Champions League Still Has A Ways To Go
Toronto FC fans seem to get the Champions League. We understand that one of the unique aspects of what makes the sport of professional club soccer so exciting is the fact that a team you support can compete in a meaningful competition with clubs from outside of MLS. The Toronto Maple Leafs will not be playing a competitive match against SKA Saint Petersburg of the Russian League for example any time soon. Nor will the Raptors be playing against Maccabi Haifa in anything other then an exhibition match any time soon either. Yet Toronto FC flies to Honduras to take on CD Motagua next Tuesday in a game with significant consequences for the rest of this season and a berth in the Champions League group stages on the line.
The atmosphere At BMO Field last night was one of the more impressive ones this observer has seen in the seventy odd matches I have seen at that stadium since it was built in 2006/2007. I think it had primarily to do with the fact that season ticket holders (although given first chance to buy seats) did not have this game included in their season ticket packages and the fans had to make an overt choice to either go or not go to this game.
Only interested fans were there. And they brought their A-Game level of support. Almost 19,000 fans were in attendance and from the first seconds of the match it was apparent to me at least that the TFC players fed off the enthusiasm from the stands.
6,873 spectators was the paltry number of fans that showed up to see the MLS League leading Los Angeles Galaxy go down to defeat to the D2 Puerto Rico Islanders 4-1 in their Champions League qualifying game last evening, just a little over a third of the attendance Toronto achieved. And Puerto Rico scored all the goals (one was of course on their own net). That attendance figure is roughly 2/3rds lower than what their league attendance averages have been this year. Here is how the Los Angeles Times reported it:
“,,,What it all means is that if the Galaxy wants to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, it will have to score at least four goals and allow none in the second game of the qualifying series in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, on Aug. 4 or it will not make it through to the final 16 of soccer’s North and Central American and Caribbean regional club championship…Not that it matters much…By Aug. 5, the Galaxy will be flying home and thinking about the Aug. 7 game against Real Madrid in Carson. By Aug. 8, Arena and company will be back to focusing on what really matters — winning the MLS Cup….”
The Los Angeles paper of record basically endorsed the fact that LA did not take this seriously and that getting back to things like meaningless friendlies and MLS League play was definitely more important. That debate can definitely be had, but with respect to the LA Times, I think they got it all wrong.
See for yourselves how poorly supported their club was last night in the video highlights below.
Video courtesy of the LA Times
Looking through a ton of messages on Galaxy fan message boards today I got to see that many fans, the front office and yes even the club manager did not take this game last night as seriously as perhaps they could have. Fans complained about high prices of tickets relative to MLS league fixtures. A lack of promotion/awareness of the game was also cited, especially in comparison to a high profile friendly the team is playing in a couple of weeks against Real Madrid. Players such as Omar Gonzales and Donovan Ricketts were rested (likely due to MLS All Star Game commitments this evening) and did not play. Some fans were absolutely gutted by the result while a large segment basically said that for them it is all about MLS and fighting for the MLS Cup and that a little tournament like this is not worthy of getting stressed over.
To the last point I think that if supporters of MLS clubs feel that the MLS Cup is the holy grail and that it and it alone will measure their success as a club then I think they are not truly getting this soccer thing as well as they could be. The debate on if MLS League success at the expense of Champions League success (or vice versa) is definitely a debate worthy of discussion. And of course comparing the nascent CONCACAF Champions League to the UEFA version (without a doubt the most important club competition on Earth) is probably a wee bit premature. Off the top of this piece I stated that having the chance to play meaningful competitive games outside of the league your club is in that have a chance to lift the exposure of the club and of the league as a whole to new heights is in and of itself a worthy reason to compete and compete hard in the Champions League.
Toronto gets it. I think that Vancouver gets it. I know Montréal definitely gets it. Hopefully our American cousins will start understanding soon that the MLS is only a part of what is possible for their clubs and their fans. Seattle Sounders, well respected to date for their solid fan support, are playing their first Champions League qualifying match this evening at home against Salvadorian side Isidro Metapan. Hopefully, unlike the Galaxy, they get the possibilities of what taking seriously a tournament like the Champions League can do for their club and their league in the years ahead. I hope they draw closer to their average of 36,000+.
Edit (July29th): Seattle drew 17,228 fans for their Champions League tilt against Isidro Metapan of El Salvador last evening. On paper that looks like a great number, however it is only about 47.6% of their MLS league average attendance this season of over 36,000 fans. TFC drew almost 19,000 according to the announced attendance figures on Tuesday. That is at about 92% of their MLS league average attendance.