Defying the notions we have as children that our most fantastical dreams are rooted in reality, Arsenal beat Sutton United 2-0 on Monday in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Sutton United was the first fifth-tier team to ever reach this late stage in the competition, and they managed to draw Arsenal. At home.
Sutton United, nestled in a hamlet in South London, was a curio for so many reasons the English press struggled to keep up. Its notice board notifying fans Arsenal was coming to town was an ancient manual board ringed by barbed wire. Its field is (gasp) turf, a relative rarity in the UK. Its backup keeper is an overweight odd-job handler in his mid-40’s who sleeps at the stadium three nights a week.
But by far the most widely reported bit of curiosity from Sutton’s Gander Green Lane was the dressing room. Namely, how damn small the visitor’s changing room is. And at least in the press, it was everywhere. I’ll save myself the hours of toil and simply let you pick through the myriad articles. It is a small changing room. You know. Befitting a fifth-tier side.
It’s almost like the English press have never covered a CONCACAF Champions League match before. Ah. Yes. Right.
Sutton United’s locker room is a point of interest. It’s small. Arsenal have a fleet of millionaires. The tea isn’t great. So on and so forth. But in reality the entire experience paled in comparison to the manic evenings provided by another cup competition (albeit not a domestic one) half a world away. And yes, I’m speaking of the infernal CCL, which provides more oddball away situations than perhaps any singular competition in the world. The Champions League’s very format works to weed out these sorts of matchups, and even the Europa League is hardly a battle of plucky upstarts. The majority of its clubs have sizeable multi-million dollar budgets.
International leagues like these – like the CCL – have to build from the ground up, so you understand its growing pains. The competition is new and played largely in countries with fragile infrastructures. But on some level it becomes hard to justify the material and emotional expense of playing these games in cricket stadiums to a smattering of fans while the well-supported league calendar waits off-stage with a titanium mallet. It’s hard to imagine that MLS clubs, in the thick of the playoff hunt when it hits the group phase in August and September, don’t view this competition with a heavy dose of skepticism.
But there’s also something else at work, something warmer. It isn’t necessarily about what the CCL is, but what it represents. Whether it’s Jamaican clubs selling their own shirts out of their hotel or these games in far-flung corners where the stadiums are glorified scrambles of concrete and rebar, the game is reduced to its essence in these moments. No steep banks of seats filled with thousands of fans, no international media presence. Just the game.
With that in mind, here three of my favorite CONCACAFy road moments for MLS clubs in the CCL since the competition reformatted in 2008. Sutton United, eat your heart out.