On April 20 and April 27, Major League Soccer fans were united in a way that's unusual on pretty much anything. What began as a viral Twitter campaign wound up with fans of Major League Soccer teams from coast to coast gathering online and sometimes in person to cheer on Real Salt Lake in the CONCACAF Champions League final against Mexican Premiera side Monterrey. #MLS4RSL.
Not every fan got on board, of course, but the majority were in Salt Lake's corner. Even your author, who is normally happy to go against the flow in these things mostly out of spite, found himself cheering hard for Salt Lake (and not just because Will Johnson plays there). Salt Lake put themselves in the driver's seat in Mexico (a place where, as we are constantly reminded every single year, no Major League Soccer team has ever won) but lost the home leg at Rio Tinto 1-0, giving Monterrey the title; their first Champions League and second CONCACAF championship.
It was a bit overblown. MLS has produced CONCACAF champions before: the Los Angeles Galaxy won the old Champions Cup, for example. The sticking point is that the league haven't tasted victory in the expanded, more legitimate Champions League, which has been more-or-less dominated by Mexican teams since its inception. Nobody even pretended to believe that a Real Salt Lake win against a very strong but by no means dominant Monterrey team would have proven MLS parity with Mexico. A Real Salt Lake victory, however, would have been a remarkable achievement as well as a potentially-promising milestone: this was the day when we realized how everything had changed, how strong MLS had become, and so forth.
It didn't happen and now #MLS4RSL has been condemned to the dustbin of history. Still, on the occasion of the Vancouver Whitecaps' first ever visit to Rio Tinto Stadium, it might be worth taking a look back at what could have been achieved... and what actually was.
No observer of North American soccer needs to be told that the Mexican first division is superior to Major League Soccer. The standard of play at the top end is higher and the depth is better. This continues down the chain: I wouldn't give FC Edmonton great odds against any Mexican second division team. At the same time, what not everybody realizes is how rapidly the gap is closing.
Not so many years ago, a Major League Soccer team getting a result of any sort against a Mexican team was cause for headlines. But today, MLS teams are almost considered on par with Mexican teams in a Major League Soccer stadium. The list of great results in recent years is as long as your arm: Toronto FC got four of a possible six points off of Cruz Azul in last year's competition, including a very legitimate 2-1 win at BMO Field that still puts giddy smiles on Toronto faces, and would have knocked them out completely if not for Preki's overconfident lineup selection against Panamanian makeweights Arabe Unido. Canadian fans will also remember the Montreal Impact giving Santos Laguna everything they could handle before poor pre-season conditioning meant the Impact stumbled down the stretch. The Columbus Crew also got a home win against Santos Laguna in this year's competition and probably earned an away win as well. Even the Seattle Sounders, who spent the tournament getting the bejeezus beaten out of them, gave Monterrey one of the games of the season in a 3-2 road loss decided by some controversial refereeing.
So what did MLS4RSL prove? Apart from anything else, it proves that we Canadian and American fans are still a bit self-conscious about this league. 1994 wasn't that long ago, not compared to the giant leagues abroad. Real Salt Lake didn't need to prove that Major League Soccer teams can hang with their Mexican counterparts; that's already been thoroughly demonstrated. The improvement in play quality in Major League Soccer over the past five years is obvious to anybody. Even I, who spat on MLS as a kid because of the lousy players with more brawn than brain, can admit that I'm almost staggered by the improvement in technical quality as well as physical conditioning.
I don't like inferiority complexes and I often accuse my fellow English Canadian fans of having them. We arrive at the pitch (or the ground, if you prefer) to watch our side, sing chants from the British Isles, and talk about wankers while drinking our lager, and then we go home and chat about assholes and beer like normal people. I'm as complicit in this as anybody but it reeks of a desire to emulate British supporters culture, not for the sake of taking their best ideas and improving upon them, but because it's soccer and therefore their way is better. I've seen this happen at soccer games in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, even Montreal. Heck, I've seen it at lower-division youth soccer games in St. Albert, Alberta.
It's my opinion that MLS4RSL was a continuation of that same attitude. That we're not quite good enough no matter how much we want to be. So we get behind a team that, if we're honest, isn't very popular of the time because we need to prove that we Americans and Canadians are legitimate soccer nations.
Anybody who still needs to have that point proven to them is never going to believe in anything as trifling as "evidence" anyway. How many competent games does it take before a fan would say "okay, I guess this MLS thing is pretty good"? How many lovely plays, how many world-class players, how many guys who go to their national teams, set the world on fire, and then come back to the Los Angeles Galaxy or the New England Revolution? There are many soccer fans, more than I like to think about, who will just never support a league like MLS. Even if the Vancouver Whitecaps won the FIFA Club World Cup beating Barcelona 5-0 on an Eric Hassli hat trick as Terry Dunfield ground Lionel Messi into the grass like a spent cigarette, I could walk out my door and wouldn't have to walk five minutes before finding a guy who'd say "yeah, but Barca wasn't really trying, were they? MLS is a crap league."
So if there was an MLS4RSL again in 2012, would I still support Real Salt Lake? Having ranted about the uselessness of it and how anybody who needs to be convinced of MLS's quality never will be: yes, yes I think I would. Because it was fun, and because the idea was such a positive one: that through banding together and rooting on our common interest, we might demonstrate the maturity and worth of Canadian-American soccer. Because I want to see leagues like MLS and the NASL succeed and knock off all comers, not because it'll help anything but for the sheer joy of it. I want MLS to get so good that English fans start eating poutine at games and self-consciously saying "eh" to try and imitate us. At the end of the day, with very few dishonourable exceptions, I stick to the Red Green Principle: remember, I'm pulling for you. We're all in this together.
MLS4RSL was a useless initiative and never could have been anything else, but it was fun. I suppose that's what matters.