LAFC, on Wednesday evening (10 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), visit Club León for the first leg of the 2023 Concacaf Champions League final. It’s the fourth time an MLS side has contested the continental final in the last six years, so most observers have grown familiar with the sight, and the league finally made its long-sought breakthrough with the Seattle Sounders’ historic capture of the ‘22 trophy.
Things were very different when Real Salt Lake reached this point 12 years ago.
A slick-passing RSL squad led by Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando and Javier Morales became the first MLSers to reach the final of the CCL in its modern iteration, finishing ahead of Cruz Azul in the now-defunct group stage and beating Columbus Crew and CD Saprissa in the knockout rounds to book a faceoff with mighty Monterrey, the kings of the region at that time.
It was rarified air for a young league whose CCL contestants were all too often getting hammered by Mexican adversaries.
“It would be rare for an MLS team to be in a final, and even on the path towards that, you’d see these horrible beatdowns – MLS teams would go to Mexico and lose by four goals,” recalled MLS Season Pass commentator Max Bretos, who’s covered MLS and North American soccer for FOX, ESPN and other outlets since the turn of the century, to MLSsoccer.com last week.
“The gap felt so large, and now there is no gap.”
RSL’s run felt groundbreaking, almost like a moon shot, with stakes that transcended one team. So a long list of luminaries across MLS, from Commissioner Don Garber to superstars David Beckham and Thierry Henry and opposing head coaches like Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena, expressed their support for the Utahns in a campaign dubbed, in an era when social-media hashtags were still fresh and new, #MLS4RSL.
“I remember being deeply moved by that,” said Garth Lagerwey, who is currently Atlanta United’s president and CEO, but was Salt Lake’s general manager at the time, and went on to play a similar role in building the Sounders side that won last year. “That you had the whole league, top to bottom, turning out, recording video messages in support of the quest. Look, that was the first one, right? RSL [were] kind of ahead of the times.
“It was this improbable thing, and so you really got the whole league rallying around you, and it was just very much together because we wanted to raise the international profile of MLS, we wanted to make it better.”
Then vs. now
Within the larger context of the rivalries between the established footballing cultures of Mexico and Central America and their incipient counterparts in Canada and the United States, respect was hard to come by. More than a decade later, Lagerwey still readily recalls how Monterrey’s star forward Aldo de Nigris scored the opening goal in the first leg of the final and was almost immediately substituted – in the 21st minute – in order to manage his minutes with the domestic playoffs close at hand.
“We were maybe a thorn in their side, so to speak, but we were not being taken seriously, even in the final,” said Lagerwey. “And so it was this kind of David vs. Goliath story at that time.
“We still got some support, albeit maybe in a less organized fashion, at Seattle [in ‘22], because no one had ever won,” he added. “I think a lot of people wanted us to win from within the league and so I felt like we had a pretty broad range of support there.
“Now, when you come out of a World Cup where MLS is No. 6 out of all global leagues in terms of players playing in the World Cup, and you're like, ‘OK, we're actually getting close. We can reach out and touch some of these bigger leagues now and we're getting closer to Liga MX.”
Despite an inspiring comeback to earn a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Monterrey, RSL’s dream crashed when they lost the second leg 1-0 at home. There was a similar vibe when the Montréal Impact, now CF Montréal, defied the odds to reach the 2015 final and gutted out a 1-1 draw in their first leg vs. Club América, only to be overwhelmed 4-2 by Las Aguilas in Leg 2 at a packed Stade Olympique.
“It felt like, miles away,” said Bretos. “It felt like MLS was never going to win this tournament.”
LAFC: Changing narrative?
Fast-forward to today, however, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any #MLS4LAFC declarations.
“This ‘let’s pull together for the league,’ that's going out the window,” said ESPN’s Herculez Gomez, who experienced CCL from both sides as a striker for several MLS and Liga MX clubs during his playing days.
“Those days are gone. You no longer have a total domination of the tournament by the Mexican teams like you once did. Sure, there still may be a more favorable outcome for Mexican teams vs. Major League Soccer, but not like it used to be when Real Salt Lake made it to the final. I mean, it was overwhelming numbers against Real Salt Lake.”
In fact, Steve Cherundolo’s talented Black & Gold side are widely pegged as favorites against León – pronounced favorites, in the eyes of some.
Are LAFC really that good? Did Seattle’s CCL triumph really change the dynamics that fundamentally? Has MLS truly reeled in Liga MX’s once-yawning advantage? Or perhaps the way in which MLS fans and stakeholders relate to the league is evolving?
Ask around, and you’ll find a range of responses.
“What we saw with RSL in 2011 and then with Montréal a few years after that was, they felt like underdogs. And I don't think we have the same feeling anymore about MLS coming up against Liga MX in Champions League,” said journalist Alicia Rodriguez, who’s covered LAFC and MLS for SBNation, MLSsoccer.com and other outlets dating back to the Los Angeles club’s former existence as Chivas USA.
“Most people understand that there's still a disparity, but the gap has closed so much that it just has not felt like ‘MLS4LAFC’ whatsoever.”
RSL and Montréal hail from two of the league’s smallest markets and carry the particular terroir of their home regions. This year’s finalists are different. Blessed with stars, wealth and glamor not only on the pitch but in the suites and at the ownership level, LAFC have aspired to greatness since their launch in 2018. Theirs is a very Los Angeles type of identity, comparable to the “Showtime” glitz of the NBA’s Lakers.
Not exactly lovable upstarts, from the point of view of fans in other places.
“Success is part of it. I think the fan culture also is something which may rub people the wrong way, because they’re in your face, they travel,” said Bretos, who anchored LAFC’s local broadcasts before the advent of the new Apple TV deal. “But that's exactly what you want in this league, you want the fan bases that would get under an opponent’s skin.
“Most things LA are disliked around the country, for whatever reason. I used to hate LA when I lived in Miami – ‘aw, frigging LA’ – and then when I moved here, I [realized] I was wrong about this place. Salt of the earth!”
Playing some of the league’s most fluid soccer while claiming two Supporters’ Shields, making a run to the 2020 CCL final and winning a Shield-MLS Cup double last season has underlined their ability to deliver.
“If you even talk to players, I think there's this sense of just respect of like, we see LAFC and we know that right now, they are in a tier of their own,” said retired MLS and US men’s national team player and MLS Season Pass analyst Maurice Edu. “You can be grumpy about it, you could be bitter about it, you can be salty about it, but it's factual, right? And it is what it is. They've done a good job in all phases of the construction of that club, both off the field and on the field.”
‘Salty’ probably describes the outlook of many LA Galaxy fans who are having to watch their crosstown rivals prosper while their club, which once occupied the high ground LAFC are on, struggles through one of its worst periods ever. There will undoubtedly be some hate-watching of this CCL final among Gs faithful, and perhaps along Puget Sound as well.
“I would say a lot of it comes down to LAFC getting the Man[chester] City treatment of just being new and splashing money – and they’re doing the right things front-office wise. And then their fans are just kind of obnoxious,” said Andrew Alesana, president of the Galaxy supporters group LA Riot Squad. “And so you couple that with them being so good, nobody's going to like them. I mean, nobody liked the Galaxy when the Galaxy was good, so I get that.
“They’ve just become the poster boys as soon as they came in, and I think a lot of people resent that.”
Sounders paved the way
Sounders partisans will forever own the distinction of having been the first MLS team to conquer the contemporary Champions League. But the subsequent hangover cratered their league campaign, ending in a failure to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in their history. If LAFC can continue their current superb run of form across both competitions, that would break its own new ground.
“It looks like how they're going to do something that in its own way is more impressive, if they win multiple trophies,” said Jeremiah Oshan, editor of the Sounder at Heart website and a longtime Sounders and MLS beat writer.
“Last year’s Sounders team felt much more like a good but still very MLS-type team. And there is sort of an aura around this LAFC team that feels like it's different, in terms of the way they've assembled talent, and their whole vibe.”
From one perspective, any MLS team’s success in CCL, and perhaps eventually the FIFA World Cup where CCL winners represent North America against the planet’s elite, can raise the fortunes of everyone else in the league. This was a big element of ‘MLS4RSL,’ akin to the sense of shared prospects that members of college sports conferences carry during bowl season and March Madness, even after competing tenaciously against one another during the regular season.
“You lean on the strength of your conference, because that gives your own success a little bit more credibility,” said Edu, who experienced this when playing for the University of Maryland in the soccer powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference before turning pro.
“There's still going to be those who put the growth of the game just in general in North America and specifically in the States, MLS, ahead of everything else,” he noted. “For those who view it through that lens, it's winning CCL, but it's also now who's going to be best suited to go and represent MLS at the Club World Cup and actually do something that moves the needle, whether it's subtle or not, but just represents the league in the right way.”
MLS fandom: It's complicated
On the other hand is the innate tribalism that is the norm for most soccer fans around the world. Having played for Scottish giants Rangers FC, Edu can confirm no one in the blue half of Glasgow is rooting for their ancient enemies Celtic on their Champions or Europa League campaigns, even if it might eventually boost the coefficients that help other Scottish clubs.
“I do think there was a genuine sense of like, we're all in this together and we want to see someone slay the dragon,” said Oshan of the RSL and Montréal runs.
“I don't think LAFC fans were happy for the Sounders for winning it first, and I think that's probably a good thing. Because it's a sign of growth that there isn't this sort of league-wide initiative.”
As MLS clubs foster deeper bonds with their fanbases, that tribal mentality has grown more common on this side of the Atlantic, often with a corresponding erosion in identification with the once-fragile league’s collective prospects.
“We're seeing more organic rivalries. I think we're seeing more organic quote-unquote hatred, if you will,” said Brian Dunseth, a standout defender during RSL’s early years who moved on to a television commentary role on the club’s broadcasts and now calls matches on MLS Season Pass.
“Maybe because we're more competitive with Liga MX, there's less of a complete push to be ‘one for all, all for one, we’re backing LAFC this year,’ vs. the way it was back in the day. … [RSL] were such significant outliers in the conversation for Concacaf Champions League winners that we almost had to have the momentum, psychologically, of the MLS fanbase behind them.”
Rodriguez cites a popular NFL-centered internet meme to make that point.
“People want to see the league succeed, but you don't see a lot of people with the Rob Lowe MLS hat around,” she said. “You see people with their club hats, and that's what you want to see. You want to see people become fans of clubs and not necessarily fans of the league, even though obviously, they do kind of go hand in hand.”
Bretos got pushback from some LAFC backers when he expressed support for Seattle’s 2022 run, though he maintains everyone in and around MLS stands to gain from member clubs advancing on the international stage.
“We can't let these opportunities slip by. This is an important step for us to be taken seriously. And I think that's been made abundantly clear by [Seattle’s] success; it’s changed impressions,” he said. “I would stick to my guns and say, if MLS teams can rattle off three or four of these, then it's one of the better developments in the league. If they can rattle off two in a row, it would show that growth.”
Even as an executive at a competing club, Lagerwey shares that view.
“You're not supposed to be able to run away in a parity-driven league, sure. But if we're on Apple, and we're a global brand now as a league,” he said, “we actually really, really want our best teams to do well. We want the big clubs in MLS to be global standard-bearers. We want LAFC, Atlanta, some of the other big-spending clubs, we want them to be featured and to be able to take on the world, so to speak.
“We're making progress, right?” Lagerwey continued. “But nobody's going to believe it ‘til you win it twice. And then it's not a fluke. Then say, back to back, and by the way, different clubs. So it's not like there's just this one outlier club aberration. It means the league's getting better. So I think it's a really important milestone to win it twice.”
That also links into the looming 2026 North American World Cup and the unparalleled opportunities it’s perceived to offer for soccer making the next great leap in this region.
“Americans still stink at being number two. We're never going to be satisfied with that,” said Lagerwey. “We always are going to want to be one of the best leagues in the world. And between now and 2026, I think we have a unique opportunity to kind of go for it in that space. Certainly that's why I'm rooting for LAFC.
“To the extent that people aren’t going ‘MLS4LAFC,’ I think it's a reflection of progress, I think it's a good thing. They don't need everybody else's help. They're going to go in as favorites.”