The development of soccer in the United States did not just run through a minor pothole last October when the U.S. men’s national team did not qualify for the World Cup, it veered off the side of the road.
Repairing such damage is impossible, because the program cannot get back what it will lose by not being in the World Cup this summer; the impact is impossible to measure. Certainly, young national team players like Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams will lose what could have been invaluable experience at the highest level of international soccer. Beyond that, though, adolescents who may have tuned in and been inspired by the action of the national team will perhaps now never be compelled to pick up a ball.
This wake of depression was opportunistically used as a time to fight for reform within the United States Soccer Federation, causing seemingly endless soul-searching that resulted in an awkward state of affairs among fans who care about the game in America.
Needing something positive to offset the wave of negativity, Major League Soccer delivered in a positive way, with two of its clubs defeating Liga MX – the Mexican top flight – teams in the Champions League of North, Central America and the Caribbean on March 13.
Ever since the continental competition was reconfigured in 2008-09, Liga MX teams have shown their superiority over their counterparts in MLS. In 20 prior knockout stage series before Tuesday, Mexican sides prevailed 18 times over MLS sides. On Tuesday, MLS went 2-for-2, with the New York Red Bulls knocking out Tijuana, and MLS Cup winners Toronto FC knocking out the powerhouse Mexican Clasura champions, Tigres.
The growth of MLS has been a promising yet slow drip, and the bucket is far from full with these two victories. Still, even the most skeptical person cannot dismiss the relevance of these wins, especially Toronto’s, which saw the very best MLS had to offer defeat perhaps the very best of North, Central and even South America combined.
Domestic club success does not go the full way in erasing heartbreak for a World Cup absence, but it does helps signify the league is moving in the right direction. Some soccer supporters will label these wins historic, while the win won’t even register in the minds of others who will forever consider the MLS an inferior league.
It’s a matter of what each individual soccer fan prioritizes, as some are full encompassing and support MLS, the USMNT, and enjoy watching foreign leagues as well, while others will only watch the highest quality of soccer they can find overseas. Those same fans will then lament the lack of growth in the American game, ironically.
But even for fans that will not embrace MLS for what it is, there is no disputing that a country’s league is intertwined with national team success, and the relationship is not only about quality, but opportunity. England has the most talented league, but Germany has a league which is almost as talented, in which more of its younger players can compete and therefore develop. Germany won the last World Cup.
MLS is not an exact reflection of the U.S. national team, as teams consist of players with all different backgrounds and origins, including many from Mexico and other areas of Latin American and the Caribbean. Still, what MLS has done and is doing is promising, and this week was perhaps its biggest coup on the international stage.
Imagine a world where young American soccer players are able to compete in a league that is just in their sweet spot; good enough to push them, but still at a level where they can transition from their respective academy and get playing time. Truth be told, that world – which seemed like a dream to ardent fans only a few years ago – may be reality in 2018.
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.