MLS showed lack of foresight and transparency around CCL patch decision

In the end, maybe it was just as well that MLS rejected the Seattle Sounders ‘request to wear their Concacaf Champions League winners’ patch for the remainder of the season. The one game the Sounders did wear it was probably their most disappointing result of the season, an embarrassing and frustrating 3-0 loss at home to the Portland Timbers. Maybe the thing was cursed.

Tempting as it is to simply move on and focus on things of far more importance, though, I feel it worth closing a few loops and registering my frustration with how this whole process played out.

First, a quick recap: When the Sounders became the first MLS team to win the current iteration of the CCL, none other than Commissioner Don Garber called it the “biggest game in the history of the league.” This was the white whale MLS has been chasing for the better part of 15 years, often pointed to as a potential inflection point in proving that we could stand toe-to-toe on the field with our rivals to the south. If we could do that, maybe we could start to seriously close the popularity gap – which remains relatively massive – the thinking went.

The Sounders immediately started looking for ways to celebrate the achievement in as public of a way as possible, and I’m sure they assumed that the league would go along with just about anything within reason.

One obvious way to do this was to put the winner’s patch on their shirt and to wear it as much as possible. This is what teams do in South America after winning the Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamerica, and also what Chelsea did after winning the most recent Club World Cup. The Sounders submitted their request to the league, only for the league to grant one-time use – similar to what they might do for a Pride night or something similar – but not anything beyond that.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that such a request had never really been previously considered. When the league came up with their current system for recognizing MLS Cups in 2016, there was apparently no thought given to how to recognize a CCL title. When the league revised that plan in 2019, still nothing. When they updated it again in 2020, CCL was never part of the equation, despite an MLS team advancing to the final in both 2018 and 2020.

The exact reasons why remain a little unclear. In my conversations with a league representative – although not the person who ultimately made the call, despite my repeated request – I got the sense that there were a few different elements at play. The official reason given was that the league was working on a “permanent” solution that would scale across the league and allow CCL winners to celebrate their titles on their jerseys in “perpetuity,” ie something similar to what some Liga MX teams do by putting stars representing continental titles beneath their crest.

That, of course, leaves an open question: Absent a permanent solution, why not let the Sounders do something temporarily, especially since they’re the only team that will be the first to win this title?

I did not really get a clear answer on that, nor were they willing to tell me when such a solution might be reached. My sense is that no one at the league office is in any hurry, and frankly they hadn’t really even started thinking about it until I pressed the issue and national media folks like Grant Wahl and Herculez Gomez picked up and amplified the message.

Still, I pressed for something approaching an explanation and while no one would give me an official answer, I did get the sense that there were two main elements at play. I suspect one is simply aesthetics. The golden patch in the middle of the chest is a little gaudy. Of course, I think the gaudiness is a little bit of the point – you want it to draw attention.

Maybe a more cynical explanation is that the center of the chest is a potentially valuable space. Why would MLS effectively give this away to Concacaf – even if it does not include the sponsor – for free? Again, I find this to be a little short-sighted, especially given the reality that nothing else is going there for at least the rest of the year, and frankly I’m a little skeptical it will ever be sold.

There were also a mishmash of other concerns, ranging from the precedent this sets for celebrating not just future CCL titles but wins in other competitions to the retention of licensing rights. This all struck me more as concern-trolling than genuinely problematic obstacles, but did speak to the league’s mindset around the request.

Essentially, what I think this came down to is decision-makers just did not like it. They seem to have been caught off-guard by the Sounders’ request to wear the patch more than once, were probably annoyed by my asking about it, and were even more frustrated when the story got some traction.

What we know is that Sounders fans enthusiastically added this to their jerseys. The Sounders Pro Shop sold out of their initial allotment almost immediately and had to put in an emergency order just to make sure they had some available for the July 9 game when the Sounders actually wore them. My understanding is that they still have a few in stock, but that they’re continuing to sell at a solid clip.

We also know that fans around the league were disappointed, not necessarily because they have any sympathy for “insufferable” Sounders fans, but because they wanted the opportunity to celebrate similarly when their club eventually wins CCL.

I have no doubt that in a couple of weeks – if not sooner – we’ll all have moved on. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a very big deal. But I still think this highlighted a few shortcomings on the league’s part:

  1. It showed a distinct lack of foresight. Keep in mind that MLS still hasn’t announced what, if any, allocation money windfall the Sounders will receive in order to help them compete in the Club World Cup, which suggests winning CCL took them completely by surprise.
  2. There was a lack of transparency. Not only was I stonewalled in my attempt to talk to an actual decision-maker, but I did not get the impression the Sounders even got a clear explanation.
  3. It showed unnecessary rigidness. While MLS is very nimble when it comes to its roster and competition rules, they apparently do not have the same inclination to adjust uniform guidelines on the fly.

None of these are necessarily groundbreaking revelations, I know, but it’s still frustrating that a team’s desire to celebrate a legitimately historic achievement was not given the air it deserved. I genuinely hope the league comes up with an elegant permanent solution, but still do not think they made a prudent calculation in rejecting a temporary one.

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