Perhaps there have been too many markers as “MLS’s biggest night” that the words have lost all meaning. So many stadium openings (which is good! Except for those that might have been opened on the public dime), or MLS Cup finals, or TV deals, or expansion teams joining the fray (and definitely not adding to a Ponzi scheme). It’s a goofy ride if you follow the league, but it’s hard to know what actually signals progress and what is just dressed up as such.
Last night in Seattle was a definite marker, and couldn’t or shouldn’t have taken place anywhere else. The Seattle Sounders became the first MLS team in 17 tries to win the CONCACAF Champions League, thwacking Pumas 3-0 for a 5-2 aggregate win over two legs. They did it in front of 68,000 at Lumen Field, on a Wednesday night.
What it means, on the ground, is that the Seattle Sounders, come next winter, will play in the same tournament, the Club World Cup, as either Real Madrid or Liverpool. They could play a South American giant like River or Boca or Flamengo. You’ll have to pardon anyone who needs a moment to comprehend seeing the Sounders, or any MLS team, on the same field as those teams. What a ride it must be for Sounders fans.
MLS has talked big about being the best league in North America, i.e. surpassing Liga MX. But you can’t do that until you have the results. One CCL triumph does not mean a seismic shift, but it has to start somewhere. In time there will be others. 2023’s Leagues’ Cup that will involve every team from both leagues will be another test, and certainly got more intriguing after last night.
It is fitting that it was Seattle to be the first. They are the standard-bearer of the league, both on-and-off the field. They have been the best-supported team from jump street, and they have acted like the big swinging dick since then as well. Sure, they found a perfect pocket as they came into MLS at the same time Seattle was reeling from the departure of the Sonics, and fans were looking to grab onto anything. But 13 years later that passion hasn’t dissipated at all. Fans in a lot of other markets watch Sounders games and wish they could have that. I know I do. And bringing in 68,000, well, in the grand scheme of things there aren’t actually that many clubs around the globe that can do so.
But that doesn’t mean the Sounders are at an inaccessible plane. Lots of places have passionate fans that want the sustained success Seattle has had and to create the consistent atmosphere that surrounds the Sounders. Many fans work hard to bring that to their town. MLS rules and the byzantine salary cap can make it difficult for teams to consistently put out the same cast of characters and build a team that fans can count on to be there year after year. But Seattle seems to do it because they’re determined to. It’s all possible for anyone ready and willing.
It’s hard not to watch any Sounders game and not only think about where the sport could go in this country, but just how far it’s already come. There are lots of us fans who remember no league at all. And the opening steps of MLS, watching games in suburban high school/college fields or retrofitted minor league baseball stadiums (yeah I know about NYCFC but shut up) or the bad jerseys or the ridiculous rules or whatever else. It’s such a trip to watch 68K show up, singing their lungs bloody as an MLS team pastes a Liga MX team. It wasn’t that long ago the thought of any of that was pure drivel.
Seattle has certainly brought the rest of the league to a new level, made the American club game look more like the one we watch on weekend mornings from across the pond. But many clubs have followed. Wednesday night is one of those giddy moments where you can’t believe how far it’s all come and simultaneously how far it could very well go. It’s a nexus, looking back and forward at the same time.
Well done to the Sounders, and their fans. We’re all appreciative of making us all dream.