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Did MLS Cup 2016 set MLS back?

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It certainly wasn’t the most exciting game we’ve seen. But did it do more harm than good?

MLS: MLS Cup Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Given the firepower of the two teams...

Given how FOX provided a network prime-time slot on Saturday evening ...

Given how the game featured USMNT fixtures Male Soccer Player of the Year Jozy Altidore, USMNT Captain Michael Bradley, MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris, 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco, and Sounders super-stud Nicolas Lodiero...

This match had all the makings of a classic.

This match had all the makings of propelling MLS and U.S. soccer to another level both at home and abroad.

This match was all set up for a thousand and one positives.

The only problem was, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders actually had to play the match. Yes, Toronto scored 17 goals in five matches leading up to the final. Yes, Seattle had been on fire since August with such an improbable run (similar to the Portland Timbers run last year).

But those were past games.

A 0-0 game was still possible. And as the game went on, it went from possible to probable. At 120’, it was a definite. 0-0! Penalties! Really? The MLS champion decided by penalties?

Gross.

But the real problem?

I believe American soccer fans, MLS, and FOX put too high an expectation of what this MLS Cup Final would produce. Yes, 0-0 stunk! But this game had mitigating factors that set it up for failure, outside of a 6-5, leaving-it-late type of game. Here are some takeaways from the game, the surroundings, and the Twittersphere that make me wonder if we’re upset at an apple (MLS) for not being squash (a young league being on par with the world’s elite leagues).

The Wins

First, BMO Field and that Toronto FC crowd. A whopping 36,025 arrive, loud and proud. Even the 1,500 Sounders fans made their presence felt. Regardless of the product on the field for that one game (and, gang, it was one game), clearly traction for soccer is gaining in the U.S. and Canada. (It’s here many will insert how the Sounders fans are somehow fake fans. But, sheesh, 1500 fans at least facing bitter weather? Sounds hardcore to me.) Speaking of weather?

Second, Stefan Frei. One of the main reasons the game stayed 0-0 was due to the iconic performance by the Sounders keeper. Toronto had 19 shots with seven on frame. The save late in the second period of extra time will go down as one of the iconic images in MLS Cup history.

Next, the 14 degree ‘real feel’ weather. Did you see the lads from both teams in warm-ups? They were chilled to the bone. And who knows? It may have taken them 20-30 minutes to warm-up. MLS does play in the spring and summer. Yes, they are professionals, but that is a factor and made a less-than-ideal game (somewhat) compelling.

Here’s my concern in reading social media.

We Americans worry too much about how the rest of the world feels.

The Twittersphere was ablaze with comments along the lines of the following (not verbatim):

  • “The world is watching, and this is the best MLS can put out? People will tune out to watch the Premiere League/La Liga/Liga MX, etc.”
  • “Until we do promotion/regulation, this is a second-rate league.”
  • “Zero shots on frame? And the Sounders won MLS Cup? Second-rate league.”

I could go on, but I’ll pass. If you followed on Twitter, you saw this as well. And you may have given a good, hardy “Amen!” to these comments.

But let’s take a step back. Do you know what all of this sounded like? We want the world to accept us as a big boy league. I know times have changed, and maybe I’m betraying my upbringing, but when did we start to care what other people think about what America did or didn’t do?

I get where this comes from— an actual love for MLS, wanting MLS to be taken more seriously on the world soccer (futbol) stage as much as the next. I understand and am right there with you. I don’t want retired retreads or just babies who, if they have an inkling of talent, are biding their time to ply their trade in Europe. It would be so very nice to have that here in the States and lower Canada. But that’s not who MLS is. And expecting MLS to function like the EPL or any other European league will set everyone up for disappointment in a New York minute. Why?

Other than the money these leagues offer, we can’t compete with the more than a century-long history these leagues have, and the tradition and ingrained supporters groups they have developed. We won’t without robbing banks. Toronto FC’s average salary per player is $838,000, highest in the league. FC Dallas is lowest with $160,000 (Source). If we take away the few millionaires in the league, the average salary would be just below $100,000. Put that up against other ‘major leagues,’ it doesn’t compare. It’s improving, but it doesn’t compare. Yet.

In time, I believe it will (but that’s for another article).

Did this game set MLS back?

In short, no.

Was it a disappointing game? Absolutely. Did FOX and MLS put their eggs in a basket of high expectations? They did—and who knows? This game may be on ESPN 2 or Fox Sports 1 next time. We so want MLS to be recognized as a ‘legitimate’ league, but who cares what other leagues think? As for me, I enjoy watching Everton in the EPL (that’s another story for another day) and Dortmund in the Bundesliga.

Because of MLS, I embraced in an irrational way a team that resides in Commerce City—the Colorado Rapids. That’s my team, whether it’s 2015 or 2016. They are only 21 years old (as is the league). Keep supporting. Keep pressuring ownership and front offices. Before you know it, the league will be 40 years old, with each club being truly ‘owned’ by their own ownership and not under a single-entity structure.

Let’s set realistic expectations.

Now, your turn. Fire away. Did this game set MLS back years, or was it just one of those games? Were too many expectations saddled on this game? You tell me.