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Jul 29, 2007

SuperLiga off to a promising start

The numbers were startling, and to network executives, thrilling. Nearly twice as many people watched the Spanish-language broadcast of the Gold Cup final on June 24 between the U.S. and Mexico than saw the last deciding Stanley Cup match.

Small wonder, then, that Major League Soccer has long coveted and tried to find a way to tap the Hispanic soccer audience at the club level. The truth is, many Latino viewers are enthusiastically loyal not only to national squads, but to their preferred club teams.

However, those teams are likely not MLS squads. In soccer shops across the country, the jerseys flying off store shelves are more likely to be those of famed Mexican teams like Club America and Chivas, rather than the Houston Dynamo.

With the SuperLiga tournament, the rivalry that is well-established between the North American powerhouses has been extended to their respective leagues. On the field, the first round of matches was a success, with close games in all the contests.

"The games have been good," said Mexican league fan Carlos Ramirez, who admitted he doesn't normally watch MLS games. "The teams have shown a lot of desire and it's clear to see the U.S. league has improved a lot."

Granted, the four Mexican teams participating in the tournament are in the midst of their preseason.

"They're still taking on new players and integrating them into the teams, while the MLS is in midseason," said Chivas fan Hugo Roman.

It wasn't just the scoring that kept SuperLiga matches interesting. The passion was clear to all those viewing. Some games grew so heated that players were ejected for violent conduct.

Perhaps tired of the excuses that are often given when Mexico loses to the U.S. during international play, though, many fans of the Mexican squads expected their teams to bounce back and improve in the upcoming rounds of the tournament.

Not a single Primera Division team beat an MLS squad in the first four games. Morelia and Chivas managed draws versus D.C. United and FC Dallas. Club America fell to Houston, 1-0, while Pachuca, the most recent league champions, lost 2-1 to the Los Angeles Galaxy.

"It's been a while that the U.S. has shown it can play well," said George Gonzales, another fan of the Mexican league. "It's not an easy win. It looks like it's no different on the club level now."

Though the entire tournament will have to conclude before one can fairly measure success, the SuperLiga has had an encouraging start to being viewed as a legitimate competition.

News sources in Mexico, after noting with dismay the lack of early victories for their league teams, scrambled to get expert opinions on the reasons why.

Francisco Palencia, a former MLS player who returned to Mexico last year to play, pointed out that U.S. squads, much like their national team, had found ways to be effective, even when they weren't technically superior.

Landon Donovan acknowledged as much after the Galaxy's triumph over Pachuca.

"Technically, they're so good -- you can't even get around the ball," Donovan said. "For me, they're the best team in Mexico. But if you have the right mentality, you have a chance to win."

For fans new to MLS, the choice between the contrasting styles of the Mexican and MLS teams, represents a bit of a schism that currently exists in the beautiful game.

Athleticism may not be as intriguing to watch as creative play, but the sport the world over has been influenced by what works.

The U.S. has reaped the benefit of that utilitarian approach versus Mexico before, setting a standard for the domestic league to follow.

"It's time for our league to start showing strength," said the Galaxy's Chris Klein. "Our national team can compete at that level and it's time for our club teams to show that as well."

The SuperLiga may introduce MLS teams to a new audience, but there are no guarantees that any of them will be swayed from their original preferences.

"I'm [still] a Chivas fan," said Roman. "I think they'll win the entire tournament."

Yet whether the tournament is followed by Hispanic fans to cheer against MLS, the league is still drawing a new measure of attention that is needed for growth. In addition, even if the SuperLiga is not exactly effective in winning MLS new fans, it has already brought the league something that is perhaps just as valuable -- a higher esteem for the young league.

"Everyone hates losing, but I think we're starting to get respect, where they can say, 'Good game' afterwards," said Donovan. "We don't have to be friends [with Mexican league players], but at the end of the day, we can look at each other and say, 'Good job. Today, you win, next time, maybe we win, but good game.'"

Ultimately, that is what fans on both sides of the border want -- competitions with good, hard-fought games. The SuperLiga has delivered that thus far, and as the games move to the later rounds, promises even more. The team that triumphs will receive the million-dollar prize, but it is the fans of that squad who will happily claim the invaluable bragging rights.

"I've seen good soccer in the matches," said Roman. "The level here has really climbed. Whoever wins the tournament will deserve the title."

Aside from the future hope that MLS squads can convert a few fans, that's perhaps the highest goal that the SuperLiga can aspire to -- becoming a competition where the winner is hailed as having achieved something truly worthwhile.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.