The Champions League knockout rounds have kicked off, giving Europe’s biggest clubs their yearly chance to go head-to-head. Further integration between the biggest teams in Europe seems inevitable, While this is a bad idea overall, it could be a good thing for American soccer fans.
Like the Super Bowl, the Champions League’s gravitational pull is hard to avoid in the soccer universe. Local leagues around the world are soccer’s heart and soul, and the European domestic leagues provide the game’s financial foundation. But the Champions League is the game’s public face.
American fans might go years without seeing a game from Italy’s Serie A, or from France’s Ligue 1, But you can bet they know about Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, and that’s because of the Champions League.
Watching Liverpool play Bayern Munich, or Juventus play Atletico Madrid, it’s impossible not to sense that the games mean more to everyone involved than regular league matches. Clubs that expect to win every week in their domestic leagues meet their match when it comes to the Champions League, and the tension and the drama flood through the television screen.
There are no small-time Champions League games, no flat, boring, meaningless-middle games. If it’s that obvious to you and me, you can be sure that the financial powers of the soccer world feel it, too.
This is why there are constant rumblings about some kind of European ‘‘super league.’’ Superclubs across the continent feel like they’re missing out on revenue because they’re forced to slog through their local leagues. No matter how rich those superclubs are, you can bet that if they feel like they can make a few more dollars by ripping up a century of league tradition, they’ll do it.
It’s a bad idea. It would quickly transform the must-see spectacle Champions League into a humdrum domestic league, albeit one that spans the continent. Europe should not do it. But if it happens, inevitably, American fans will be a beneficiary.
For one, shrinking the sprawling European soccer world down to a single showpiece league would make things much more simple for the vast majority of American fans. There’d be no more combing through the schedule to try to find the best game to watch in the Bundesliga or La Liga. It would just be a matter of turning on the Super League game.
For another thing, it would be a boon for MLS, which would suddenly have dramatically fewer leagues to compete with for fans, players and sponsorship dollars. MLS has already tempted players from second-tier European leagues. Consolidating top teams into one tier would drastically expand that second tier. With only one European league drawing interest away from local teams, American fans’ attention would naturally gravitate even more toward MLS.
It’s not much of a silver lining. It certainly won’t do anything for European fans, whose national leagues would suffer grievous injury, and for American soccer fans who enjoy the sprawling nature of the European game. But given how much more interested the superclubs seem to be in the Champions League, compared with local leagues, it seems like the change is unavoidable. At least it would be good for American soccer.