About That Heritage Cup

Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (via Paul Lowry under a Creative Commons license)

One of the mostly overlooked storylines of last night's comeback victory over the San Jose Earthquakes was that the Seattle Sounders won the 2011 Heritage Cup — their second consecutive win in the three-year history of that trophy. That would be the third piece of hardware for the Sounders this season after the 2011 Cascadia Cup and the 2011 US Open Cup. While I'm sure nearly every Seattle fan would rank the Heritage Cup below (and generally well below) the other two, I think it's worth a little extra bit of celebration.

The Heritage Cup is intended to celebrate the history of American soccer by being contested "between Major League Soccer (MLS) teams named after their markets' North American Soccer League (NASL) predecessors" (via Wikipedia). It was initially awarded in 2009 when the Sounders entered the league and they and the San Jose Earthquakes were the only qualifying teams. Since then the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps have entered the league and would be qualified, but both of their fan groups declined to participate, citing the fact that Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver already contest the Cascadia Cup — which reflects a historic and deep-seated rivalry — and that the Heritage Cup would effectively be just the Cascadia Cup plus one. But with the entrance of the Montreal Impact into MLS next season, there would potentially be a fifth competitor if the founders of the Cup are willing to expand the definition beyond just original NASL teams (which did not include the Impact) and include A-League teams. And the Cosmos potentially wait on the horizon, though their stock as a future MLS franchise continues to rise and fall seemingly weekly. Regardless, it remains to be seen whether Portland and Vancouver choose to compete for it next season.

While we take for granted the continuity of the Sounders tradition from NASL through the A-League and USL into the MLS era, it's worth remembering that team and league ownership has too often been willing to chuck it out the window. From the initial days of MLS it was decided by ownership and large investors in the league (like Nike) that rather than embrace the American soccer tradition the new league would wipe the slate clean, presumably hoping that a clean reboot would paper over the messy earlier failures to establish an American soccer first division. And so even markets that had a well established soccer brand were given new names and new logos, which is why the original San Jose franchise became the Clash.

And while there are many unfortunate aspects of the first decade of MLS that have been remedied in the Don Garber era, the tradition of rejecting soccer tradition has been until recent years alive and well. Most Sounders followers will remember that when MLS expansion to Seattle was announced, the fans were given an opportunity to vote on a name and 'Sounders' was not even presented as an option. It took an overwhelming fan-organized write-in campaign to send a clear message that the professional soccer team in Seattle is named the Sounders, no matter what league it's competing in. And it's probably no coincidence that after that decision was accepted and Seattle came roaring out of the gate that the expansion teams in Portland and Vancouver were named the Timbers and Whitecaps with little apparent controversy, with the Impact following a year later.

So while it's easy to mock the Heritage Cup as being a weird sort of rivalry cup that isn't actually contested by a rivalry (and heck, I occasionally mock it myself), it's worth remembering that it does stand for something. And it stands for something that we as fans had to fight for. It stands for that fact that soccer in America wasn't invented in 1996. It's been here and it's been loved a long time, and that's a legacy that deserves to be honored, no matter how many brand consultants can cram into a meeting to tell you otherwise.

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