On the Field, D.C.'s Priorities in Order
The club's leadership and marketers, its supporters, the rest of Major League Soccer, and the large number of people throughout this country who claim to like the sport may be too distracted by the vacationing superstars from Europe to care, but at least United's players and coaches seemed to last night. They got a result in a match that actually mattered, overcoming conditions that had proven too much for many predecessors to advance to the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. In so doing, they proved that a select few people in American soccer still have their priorities in order.
It was an ugly game, full of misplaced passes and ballooning shots. But these are not the sorts of contests that produce free-flowing, highlight-reel soccer (like say, friendlies in which nobody is tackling or trying). United was going to have to sweat for a result in San Salvador, and the team worked hard and held firm against Luis Angel Firpo, a late replacement in the Champions League's preliminary round that has not yet started its domestic campaign. Christian Gomez scored on a free kick in the 42nd minute, leveling the aggregate at 2-2, and D.C. had the majority of the possession in the second half. They then cleanly dispatched all five penalty kicks in the tiebreaker to seal their passage.
Regardless of the level of individual talent on Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan and the like, getting a result in San Salvador was a whole lot more difficult then defeating the aforementioned superclubs on tour. The statistics prove the point -- MLS clubs have won just three of 23 matches played in Central America in official competition, and the league's only victory on Mexican soil in 17 games came by forfeit. It's hard to win down there. Even winning in the Caribbean is difficult, as Toronto FC demonstrated last night when it was knocked out of the Champions League by the USL's Puerto Rico Islanders. The record against vacationing European teams is far more flattering.
Knowing that, and well aware that more than 60,000 fans have bought tickets to see them play Real Madrid on Sunday, Soehn could have rested older players like Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and Ben Olsen. He easily could have justified the decision. A spot in the group stage would mean six more games and three trips abroad this fall, during which D.C. will be fighting for its playoff life in a packed Eastern Conference. Soehn won't lose his job if he fails to steer United into the CONCACAF knockout rounds, but he will be looking for work if D.C. misses the playoffs for a second year running.
In addition, United's front office has sent a clear message that the Madrid game is more important. The match has been marketed heavily, and successfully, here in Washington. The first leg against Firpo was not, and drew fewer than 10,000 fans on a Tuesday night. D.C. President Kevin Payne said in a recent conference call that he understood and appreciated the complications that could result from jamming an exhibition match into a tightening schedule that includes a U.S. Open Cup final and the Champions League, but claimed clubs like Madrid present a special opportunity.
"Throughout our history, we have tried very hard to test ourselves against the best teams from around the world as often as possible. This will be in, many ways, our greatest test," he said. "If this were not Real Madrid, if this were a mid-table Premiership team or a smaller team from Spain or Italy, I don't think we would be playing the match. But opportunities to play a club like Real Madrid don't come along that often and, while strictly from the stand point of the competition it could easily be argued that this is an added game that we don't need, we've always believed that in terms of our long-term strategy and building our brand, these games are invaluable."
However, when you visit United's Web site, the tagline is "Winners of twelve major domestic and international titles", not "We've played Real Madrid and Chelsea in friendlies". United sells its success, and pandering to the sort of soccer "fans" who have no interest in supporting their local club and who wish only to hop on a bandwagon and worship at the altar of those European football corporations that can afford to buy the best players, is not going to solidify long-term success. Winning will. When the victories and trophies accumulate, when an MLS club is able to stake its claim as a regional force, then the Europoseurs who did nothing to further the growth of the game in this country will be forced to find another excuse for their genuflecting.
The Madrid game will be fun, as will Seattle's match against Barcelona this evening. But these games should be treated as afterthoughts, as runs in the park. The way for MLS clubs to enhance their profile is by winning meaningful matches and changing the perception of American soccer over time. Last night, when Soehn put all his old warriors on the field, when United fought through cramps and fatigue to advance, the club did more for American soccer then anything it might accomplish at FedEx Field on Sunday. The players and coach should be congratulated for doing so.
"We want to be one of the better teams in this region and this is a way to put a stamp not only in America but abroad and show that D.C. United is a regional power," Olsen said last night.