The human brain has a tendency to look for patterns in places where none exist. It’s a phenomenon known as pareidolia, and it explains why conspiracy theories are so popular, and why some people see a human face on Mars or the Virgin Mary in a random MRI scan. This ability to look for significance where there is none is ingrained in us from our earliest days of existence, when our ancestors took off running whenever the bushes started rustling, because that could have been a hungry lion getting ready to pounce, and hey, nobody wants to be dinner.
That might explain why I’m seeing a pattern behind the Dwayne DeRosario trade that took place over the weekend. On the surface, one team is getting better by welcoming home a local hero and proven MLS all-star, while the other is getting younger in the midfield and freeing up cash to bring in a designated player at striker. For some reason, though, I find myself looking beneath the surface here and seeing a league that made this deal happen because it’s decided to get serious about winning the CONCACAF Champions League.
MLS commissioner Don Garber might have told the New York Times a few weeks ago that the CONCACAF Champions League wasn’t that big a deal to the league, but his recent actions would suggest otherwise. MLS changed the qualification format of SuperLiga, inviting the best clubs that don’t qualify for the Champions League to play in that competition. Clearly, the league wants to avoid a repeat of the Joe Public fiasco.
So how does the Dwayne DeRosario trade fit in with this quest to win the Champions League? Consider that Toronto FC has only one qualification path to CONCACAF — the Voyageurs Cup, a competition between the top three (only three?) professional soccer clubs in Canada. TFC’s only competitors here are two USL First Division clubs, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Montreal knocked TFC out in the last match of the competition, won the Cup and went on to advance to the knockout round of the Champions League.
Keep in mind here that both USL-1 clubs made it through to the knockout stage — the other being the Puerto Rico Islanders — while only one MLS club out of four got through, and the Houston Dynamo only survived by the skin of their teeth. Garber can downplay this all he wants, but deep down, MLS officials and team owners have to be just a little bit embarrassed by that.
So how does the DeRosario trade fit into the pattern here? For starters, it instant improves Toronto’s midfield and gives them a proven star that can create scoring opportunities, something that club has lacked in its first two years of existence. This instantly gives TFC a leg up on Montreal and Vancouver in the Voyageurs Cup. MLS isn’t about to let another USL club take from them what’s supposed to be an easy Champions League spot.
Second, it allows Houston to spend big money to bring in a proven goal scorer that can make things happen in the knockout stage now — you can hear Fulham denying Clint Dempsey rumors already, can’t you? — while giving the team a foundation on which it can build for next year’s Champions League. The Dynamo are one of the few bright spots in MLS, and the league clearly wants to make sure that continues in the immediate future.
Now I admit I’m probably seeing things that aren’t there. After all, I support a USL-1 club, and I enjoy watching USL clubs eat Major League Soccer’s lunch every so often. We Carolina Railhawks supporters want to beat the Charleston Battery more than anyone else in the league. That’s our Southern Derby rival, after all. However, when Charleston faced D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup Final, we backed the Battery 100%. The lack of promotion and relegation between MLS and USL has created a rivalry of sorts between the two leagues, and every time USL puts one over on MLS, it warms my underdog-loving heart.
So in my eyes, MLS appears to be making moves to keep those USL clubs at bay. The last thing Don Garber wants is for casual soccer fans in America to discover there’s another league out there, and that league has clubs in big cities, and those clubs might be pretty good. As the CONCACAF Champions League grows in importance, so does MLS’ desire to keep a rival league from poaching its qualification spots. Changing the SuperLiga qualification format is one step toward this. The Dwayne DeRosario trade looks like another step, even if it might not have been engineered by the league itself. (Of course, since the league owns all its clubs and doesn’t talk much about its inner workings, who’s to say?)
There might be more steps next winter — a larger salary cap, perhaps, or further roster expansion. Some might see expansion as a dilution of the talent pool, but clearly, there’s plenty of talent to be found in USL right now, and I suspect MLS will want to scoop up some of that talent in the next few years. The last thing this league wants is some upstart competitor rustling the bushes, preparing to pounce all over its Champions League bids.
Again, though, that’s just my brain trying to find a pattern where there might be nothing. How does your brain react to this trade?