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MLS Champions League Solidarity is Dead
The Free Space has died and we have buried it under the tree in Santiago
Austin's Tuesday night defeat at home by Haiti's Violette is the sort of thing that should spawn movies and books and AppleTV+ shows, but unfortunately doesn't because of this confederation's inability or outright refusal to market its most significant tournament. Violette's league has been on pause for months, they couldn't play their home leg in their home country, and when they did eventually get to play the home leg, they had to do it on a stadium with a huge tree behind one of the two goals. They came up to Texas, held on to their 3-0 lead with the intensity that the person accidentally improperly harnessed into a zipline did in a viral video I saw on Facebook this morning but cannot recover. Austin, having shown such hubris in playing a lineup primarily made of inexperienced reserves in the first leg, put all of their best players out, including the fantastic Sebastian Driussi, who scored two (and crucially, only two) very impressive goals. Austin had 90 minutes plus ten of stoppage time to equalize, and came so very close so very many times, but somehow, with 101+ minutes on the board, they'd only scored two.
This was not "storybook". There are the great sports moments that are "storybook": Kirk Gibson hitting that home run, Michael Jordan pumping his fist after rising up over Craig Ehlo, Carli Lloyd chipping the goalkeeper in the World Cup final. These are the picturesque, cinematic moments accompanied by orchestral swells and John Facenda narrations.
There are other great sports moments that happen with many caveats and potholes. There will be no orchestal swells to accompany the Amro Tarek own goal, slotted home off the volley with incredible force and panache under the branches of the tree. If the current reactions are anything to go by, while stories told about this upset will give show respect to the Violette players and acknowledge the Herculean effort put forth to complete this, the majority of the discussion will be about how Austin choked, and specifically how it is funny that Austin choked.
It is abnormal. In the various discursive spaces surrounding MLS, I see a lot of laughter -- which typically accompanies any MLS team eating shit in the Concacaf Champions League, but in this case, I see a lot of laughter from fans of other MLS teams. This is a rare occurence. In years past, fans of MLS teams have had a tendency to look past in-league rivalry with the knowledge that the reputation of the league in which their team plays is at stake in the CCL. Losses were met with shared disappointment in many cases, plenty of heartbreak followed LAFC giving up their slim lead over Tigres in 2020 or Toronto losing to Chivas on penalties in 2018. When Sporting KC lost 10-2 to Monterrey in 2019, they were less disappointed and more angsty about how this made the league look bad, but regardless, the rivalries tended to slip away in favor of a sort of soft cross-national pride. For years, it's been #MLS4RSL and #MLS4MTL and #MLS4TFC from fans of MLS teams come CCL time.
In years past, the Austin team that competed for the Supporter's Shield up to the last few weeks of the season, a postseason semifinalist, losing this badly to a team they should so obviously outmatch would prompt the indignant "That's a bad look for Major League Soccer" posts from the people on Twitter and the "Oh god now nobody's going to respect us" catastrophizing from the people on Reddit.
I see none of that. I see no embarassment from fans with DC United flairs or Nashville SC profile pictures about Austin's loss. I see laughter. I see a lot of laughter. Mean, edgy, Muntzian pointing and laughing. I see no "Free Space" mentions from the Extratime hosts, in fact, I see them outwardly ridiculing Austin's fans. There is no MLS solidarity for Austin FC this week, and that is a significant shift from how things used to be.
There are two factors that changed this: First, and most obvious, was Seattle getting the proverbial monkey off the back of Major League Soccer last year. I watched the Seattle Sounders, probably the team that I generally dislike the second-most of anybody in MLS (Salt Lake is number 1, with Houston, Portland, and Seattle tied for second), win Champions League last year, and I felt happy for them. I was happy to see them do it. I wrote something like 10,000+ words about how big of a deal that it was that they did it. I figured, in the moment, that Seattle doing this would take some of the pressure off of future competitors and lead to a more competitive future for MLS teams in Champions League. I figured that I wouldn't feel any sort of league-level or American-level pride driving me to support an MLS team in CCL in the future. I figured, if RSL or another rival somehow makes it to the CCL final at some point, I can firmly watch as a neutral, or even quietly, by myself (have you ever tried inviting another person over to watch the Concacaf Champions League with you? Have you ever tried to get the Concacaf Champions League put on a TV at a bar? I struggled to get that to happen when I was bartending!) hope for the non-MLS qualifier in the final to get the win. I didn't foresee that it would start being entertaining to see MLS teams fall on their faces in CCL.
The second factor here is Austin FC. I didn't see a ton of laughing at Colorado losing to a Guatemalan team in the snow or New England blowing a multi-goal lead on the road. There was not a lot of 'serves you fuckers right' slung towards the long-suffering fans of those two clubs. Austin, on the other hand, has struggled to and in most cases actively shirked the opportunity to make friends. They spent a lot of last year acting very brashly. They had the laminated sheet of paper with the incorrect projections of the MLSSoccer.com writers, the burnings in effigy, and allegedly the destruction and vandalization of rival supporter groups' equipment. They brought a lot of hubris and carry themselves very proudly, and it brings us catharsis to see the hubristic and proud knocked over. That hubris carried over to Josh Wolff's decision to field such an obviously non-first-choice squad in the first leg, then add to that the fact that, on Tuesday morning, Austin's former Sporting Director and current employee in some form Claudio Reyna was revealed in text messages recovered for a USSF report to be not just an overbearing helicopter soccer parent (we already knew that) but also a sexist overbearing helicopter soccer parent, and many people were very ready to see Austin fail on Tuesday.
We'll see how the broader MLS fan emotions fall as the tournament progresses. Will we be put off enough by the equally brash and proud LAFC fans to the point that we cheer on their opponents? Will we find the concept of the Philadelphia Union again doing everything right before ultimately tripping and falling as victory hangs before them so intriguing that we cheer for it to happen? Will years of pent up lack of emotion about the Vancouver Whitecaps finally ferment into a blood-boiling rage at the concept of a trophy being lifted on that MASL-quality turf? I suppose we'll find out in the coming weeks.