To get the assignment required a bit of a sales pitch.
It was January of 2001 and I was trying to explain to my bosses at ESPN: The Magazine why I should cover an event that was then known as the CONCACAF Champions' Cup. For one thing, I told them, it was a chance to see how Major League Soccer's best teams stacked up against the best club teams from our region. For another, it would be a great opportunity to talk to players from D.C. United and the LA Galaxy for our MLS preview. Finally, I could get some face time with rising star Ben Olsen, who was rumored to be on his way to Nottingham Forest after a successful loan stint there to finish 2000.
I got the go-ahead, flew cross-country and got to witness the last time an MLS team would win the competition that's now known as the CONCACAF Champions League.
At the time, I would have never guessed MLS would go a dozen years without winning that trophy again. D.C. United had won in 1998. The Chicago Fire and D.C. both lost in the semifinals in 1999. So, when Ezra Hendrickson scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner in the 78th minute of LA's 3-2 championship victory over Olimpia of Honduras at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it did not seem like something that would become a milestone.
But there it is.
Truth be told, the event seemed small-time. The quarterfinal round was played at Cal State Fullerton and the only teams that had any visible support were Pachuca, who got by Joe Public of Trinidad & Tobago, and Toluca, who lost 1-0 to Olimpia. If there was television, I cannot recall. But there wasn't really any "television presence." Put it that way.
However, as we've learned with many soccer-related things in the United States, sometimes patience is required. From that week in Southern California to what we will witness on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at CenturyLink Field (Seattle vs. Santos, 10 pm ET, Fox Soccer) and the Home Depot Center (LA vs. Monterrey, 10 pm ET, Fox Soccer), and then again a week later in Monterrey and Torreón, we've seen growth.
We've seen the growth of the US vs. Mexico rivalry as it pertains to the national teams. Not just in World Cup qualifying, but in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which has grown in both intensity and quality over the past decade. And we've seen a healthy rivalry develop between MLS and the Liga MX. Seattle did their part to improve the rivalry by coming from behind to eliminate Tigres UANL. And now they get a shot another shot at Santos.
And I feel some urgency.
I feel some urgency because the Mexican teams have upped the ante. It's one thing to attract somewhat large and loud crowds in Fullerton, it's another thing to now see the Mexican national team and Liga MX teams all over American television. It's all good, but it's also a challenge that's been thrown down, and MLS must respond on the field.
I feel some urgency because Mexican teams have simply had their way with MLS teams on their home turf. I looked the numbers up on Monday. In the history of all international competitions, MLS teams are 2-23-4 on Mexican soil and have been outscored 83-28. What Santos Laguna did to the Sounders in the quarterfinals last year (6-1) and to Toronto FC in the semifinal (6-2) ... quite simply, those are results that are not easy on the eyes.
Looking back at all the things I set out to do on that trip to Southern California a dozen years ago, obviously, I saw that MLS teams could play with the best in the region, at least on home soil. I got what I needed for my preview. Olsen? He was hobbling around on a bad ankle that ended up costing him not only a transfer to Forest but also a chance to play in the 2002 World Cup, and a pretty good chunk of his career.
The writers who cover the game now shouldn't have to come up with such an elaborate sales pitch to editors to cover these semifinal matches. Storylines abound, with Obafemi Martins ready to go for the Sounders and Landon Donovan back for the Galaxy.
That, and two teams trying to do something that hasn't been done in a long time.