The Throw-In: Big or small trophies, it's all about winning
Portland fans are close enough to the Cascadia Cup that they can taste it like a locally bottled IPA. They may feel hard-done after last weekend’s draw with Seattle, and they may be right on a few calls that went the Sounders’ way.
But in a few weeks’ time, when they face their archrivals for the third and final time this season up at CenturyLink Field, they can officially seal the deal and win the trophy – their first of any kind as an MLS team.
In a long season full of frustration, turnover and poor results, that will go an awful long way to end 2012 on an up note in the Rose City. The Timbers could rescue a modicum of victory and regional pride and will head into the offseason with their heads held a bit higher. Predictably, Sounders fans will scoff – perhaps rightly so – as their team heads to the playoffs with the bigger goal of the MLS Cup.
How much value do we assign to the Cascadia Cup? In the Pacific Northwest, it’s a sizable honor for the supporters of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. It’s the bragging rights of a heated three-team local derby that traces its roots to the heyday of the old NASL.
For the rest of the country, it’s a shrug and a sarcastic shake of the head. A regional trophy with no “official” accomplishment makes no difference to them. But then again, it’s the same situation for the Atlantic Cup, the Rocky Mountain Cup, the Brimstone Cup, the Trillium Cup or any of the rivalry cups.
In short, Portland aren’t going to go down in history – from a league perspective, anyway – for winning the 2012 Cascadia Cup. Same goes for D.C. United, who won back the Atlantic Cup from New York last month.
So what are fans supposed to make of these trophies? For Portland, it’s a sign of progress, a symbol of success upon which they can hang their hats in their second MLS season. It is perhaps a springboard to future glory, when a young team with a young coach can do great things as they evolve.
Up in Seattle, the expectations are very different. After a three-peat of US Open Cups, the Sounders have turned the page and are looking to make a difference where they have thus far failed as an MLS team: in the playoffs, and in 2013, the CONCACAF Champions League. With gobs of cash, a monstrous fan base, a culture of winning and a healthy taste of international competition, Seattle now expect far more.
That differing set of expectations for two archrivals beautifully illustrates how success is measured very differently around the league. Every team wants to win MLS Cup, of course. But depending on your recent history and independent circumstances, reality often dictates your expectations.
Take Toronto FC, for instance. The playoffs have eluded MLS’ first Canadian club for an incredible sixth straight year. In the meantime, TFC have made winning the Canadian Championship a priority in a void of league success. That has put them into the CONCACAF Champions League three consecutive times.
Say what you will about their mistakes over the years; they have inarguably set a precedent of success in that corner. The fans are exasperated with the Reds’ ongoing league failure, but they at least know they will prioritize Canadian glory.
In Montreal, they’re already making eyes at challenging on that front. The playoffs may end up being out of reach for the Impact’s first MLS season, but by setting the early goal of being the top Canadian finisher in 2012, they’re already making eyes of unseating Toronto and establishing a culture of winning early.
On the other end of the spectrum are the LA Galaxy. With a long history of trophies, stars and glitz, MLS Cups aren’t enough anymore. Sure, the defending champs would like nothing more than to defend their crown in December and add a fourth league title to the cabinet. But they’re thinking beyond, as the team has repeated: They want to become a global brand eventually at the level of Manchester United and FC Barcelona.
It’s for that reason that the Galaxy are putting extra emphasis on the Champions League – to win it would put them at the big dance at the FIFA Club World Cup with the world’s superpowers, an unprecedented stage of global exposure for the Galaxy brand. Mere trophies aren’t enough for LA, and their fans have come to expect that.
Most of the rest of MLS falls somewhere in between. Sporting Kansas City will point to their US Open Cup triumph – their first trophy in eight years – as evidence of the organization’s turnaround and evolution into a perennial contender. Again, an MLS Cup is the ultimate goal, but it all starts with one flashpoint moment.
New York would take anything at this point. They’ve been close repeatedly, but that first major trophy has eluded them repeatedly. Yet they’re aimed at all the glory they can right now. With an all-star cast, fans rightfully expect a trophy, but are nervously cognizant of the fact that there’s no precedent yet.
And that’s perhaps where it all starts: a precedent. You win something, you build momentum. You build momentum, you enjoy more success. And when you’re a winner, you can set your goals as high as you want.
Maybe it all starts with a Cascadia Cup.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.