New England beat Houston on penalties, 6-5, Tuesday in the 2008 SuperLiga final, following an enthralling 2-2 tie in regulation and overtime. As good and dramatic as the match was, it lacked the rivalry and intensity present when MLS teams meet their Mexican counterparts, as was the case both years in the semifinals as well as group play.
"Was it the same the second year? Probably not," says Galaxy president Alexi Lalas, whose team forced overtime in the 2007 final when Chris Klein equalized with a spectacular bicycle kick in stoppage time. "But tournaments always can't be perfect. So, yeah, I think there is a future for it, both from a competitive side and a business side."
Only 12,500 fans watched the 2007 final at HDC, with capacity limited to that figure so the roads and parking lots at the stadium and adjacent Cal State University Dominguez Hills wouldn't be overcrowded. For its other SuperLiga games, the Galaxy drew good crowds regardless of the opposition: 19,317 for Pachuca in group play and 17,223 for D.C. United in the semifinal. Its match in Dallas drew 21,576 fans who witness an amazing 6-5 Galaxy win.
This year, the New England semi (against Atlante) and final at Gillette Stadium drew crowds of 8,302, and 9,242, respectively. In the other semifinal last week, Houston beat Pachuca in front of 16,679 fans.
"Our experience in the first year probably differed than that of the MLS teams in the second year, but we saw it as a wonderful tournament," says Lalas. "We were disappointed to lose in the final but, the fans who attended those games, including the final, had to be proud and excited about what it became. We at the Galaxy will continue to support it, and hopefully make a return to it."
By beating three Mexican teams - Atlante, Santos Laguna, and defending champion Pachuca - by 1-0 shutouts, New England midfielder Khano Smith believes his teammates proved they could adapt to a style of play different from that of the typical MLS match
"They are really good soccer players," says Smith. "The whole thing in Mexico is being technical and they're good at that. But overall our athletic ability and our strength is what did it for us.
"We were faster and stronger and just better athletes. They may have been better soccer players but our athleticism won the games for us. Obviously, they're in preseason so they're not as strong as they could be. They just couldn't handle us."
Smith's fellow midfielder Shalrie Joseph thinks the possession style played by most Mexican teams also brought out some characteristics Revs Coach Steve Nicol tries to impart to his team, which abounds with players eager to sweep up the ball and go to goal with it.
"SuperLiga gives you a different perspective than any MLS game," says Joseph, who scored three goals in SuperLiga play from serves by Steve Ralston. "The Mexicans, they play such a possession game, they move the ball from the forward to the back.
"Everybody wants to get a touch. Against a team that likes to keep possession, we like to try and keep possession. It's good for MLS teams to play Mexican teams and measure ourselves against them."
SuperLiga 2008 hit a few bumps along the way. The Houston and New England players angered MLS management by agreeing to pool the money paid out to players on the winning team ($150,000) and the runnerup ($100,000), after the league blocked an attempt by Dynamo operator-investor AEG to pay its own SuperLiga bonuses. The MLS Players' Union contended this action violates the Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiated by the MLSPU and MLS and filed a grievance, which will be arbitrated in the fall.
After losing their semifinals with the unwitting assistance of some poor officiating, Atlante and Pachuca players, coaches and officials swarmed onto the field to scuffle and bicker.
Lalas, though, points out such scenes are hardly unknown in the world of competitive soccer, and many matches have been marred by incidents far worse. "What was funny to me was the surprise," says Lalas, who during his career as U.S. international once took a kick to the groin from Mexic's Ramon Ramirez.
"This should not be surprising at all. We're kind of naïve to think this isn't what happens everywhere around the world, and that MLS teams don't do it is a credit to the honor and the professionalism that a lot of times we show."
And as for the poor sportsmanship shown by the Mexican teams after the semifinals? All part of the show, and the rivalry, and proof positive that teams on both sides of the border don't like to lose to their neighbors.
"It's fun to see the Mexican teams with their bravado get taken down a peg or two and have New England run through some of the best teams from Mexico, and also to see them cry like babies at the end of the game," says Lalas. "That's fun, because it validates what a lot of us believe, in that not only can we compete against Mexican teams, but in many cases, we're better than Mexican teams, regardless of what they'd like to believe."