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MLS: Friendlies against foreign teams still don’t work

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Major League Soccer is not doing American soccer any favors by having its all-stars play against top foreign teams year after year. The entertainment value is never as high as expected, and it inevitably just leads to more discussion about how far behind the rest of the world Americans are. That is hardly worth the large payday the league likely gets for putting on these spectacles.

From the players’ perspective, it is difficult enough to just play in an all-star game. The majority of players are not used to playing with one another, which is obvious in their understandably disjointed effort against well-oiled and well-acquainted teams.

Nobody on either side of the ball takes these games seriously, either. The goals are to get everybody some playing time and avoid injury. Looking at the recent MLS All-Star Game, three MLS goalkeepers saw playing time, along with 19 field players. Manchester United was performing at less-than-maximal levels also. Sir Alex Ferguson was more concerned with his players’ fitness levels.

“We’ve trained well and, during the games, played some good stuff,” striker Wayne Rooney said to the Manchester United website. “Basically, it’s all about getting the fitness work in to try and prepare for the upcoming season.”

Surely, there are better ways to showcase the talent in MLS. If Commissioner Don Garber really needs to flaunt it with an all-star game, bringing back the traditional East vs. West matchup would allow the game to be what it is meant to be – a show of talent and entertainment. As for the foreign teams, which come to the United States because of the expanding fan base, the revenue tours offer and the training facilities in place, have them play against each other.

Matchups between foreign teams and MLS teams do not really work. The MLS calendar is still incompatible with the rest of the world’s. By the time mid-season friendlies roll around, teams are concerned with the playoff run and not injuring or overworking players. This just pressures coaches to put their reserve teams on the field for at least half of the game, and the Seattle Sounders FC vs. Manchester United game showed what happens in those situations.

Besides United’s 7-0 embarrassment of the Sounders on their own field, the inconvenience of these friendlies has culminated in some other noteworthy, yet ultimately meaningless, results. Last year, Sporting Kansas City defeated United 2-1, but this year, United has been perfect in three matches against MLS opponents, brushing aside the Sounders, All-Stars and Chicago Fire. Manchester City defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1, while Portsmouth tied Charleston 0-0, and Orlando beat Newcastle United 1-0. Red Bull New York lost to PSG before tying Arsenal in the Emirates Cup in London.

These results, some of which do not reflect well on MLS, prompted Garber to lament MLS clubs’ effort in mid-season friendlies.

“Our view is that if we’re going to play these games, we ought to play to win,” the MLS commissioner said. “And if a team can’t fit it into their schedule either because of congestion or their own priorities, then they shouldn’t play in those games.”

Sure, don’t play the friendlies. Give up the additional revenue that sell-out crowds at these games bring. If MLS is serious about competing as a top league in the world, concessions must be made to allow these games to happen. However, MLS could take some steps in its scheduling process to make these friendlies more interesting and entice coaches to go for a win.

The league could leave a bit more room in the month of July to accommodate both friendlies and the start of CONCACAF Champions League play. That would mean stretching the calendar a bit, which has been in discussion for a while.

“At some point, we’re going to be able to push that calendar deeper and deeper into March and perhaps into February,” Garber said. “And when we’re able to do that, I think we’ll be able to free up some of the congestion.”

Unfortunately, not all MLS clubs will be able to accommodate a change that easily. Real Salt Lake, Chicago, Columbus, DC United, New York, New England, Toronto FC and (starting next year) Montreal Impact all will have trouble handling early games at home because of the weather. The only way for them to accommodate it would be to have them go on extended road trips early in the season and perhaps hold preseason training somewhere away from home, which would put a strain on their budgets.

No amount of calendar stretching solves the problem on the other side of the ball, save for a complete compliance with the European calendar, which will never happen. Foreign teams will still be concerned primarily with fitness and preparation for their season.

In other words, will likely never care about MLS friendlies.

Liviu Bird is a goalkeeper for Seattle Pacific University and editor-in-chief of The Falcon, Seattle Pacific’s student newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Comments (8)

  1. “Red Bull New York lost to PSG before tying Arsenal in the Emirates Cup in London”

    The red bulls defeated PSG 1-0 and won the Emirates cup…

  2. Newyork Redbulls did not lose to PSG as you say – they beat them 1-0 then came back from 1-0 down to Arsenal resulting in them winning the Emirates cup, this could only be seen as positive.

    Duncan – Arsenal Fan

  3. New York beat PSG 1-0….. btw…. and tied arsenal 1-1

  4. Ny beat psg

  5. Red Bull beat PSG to win the Emirates cup actually. But your point about the reputation remains valid, it’s a lose-lose situation. If Red Bull lose, it’s because american soccer is behind, as you mention. If they win, it’s because they are in the middle of a season and therefore fitter and not as rusty (as at least one arsenal blog I read pointed out).

  6. MLS FOOTBALL, is the same as championship football in England simple. The standard will never rise as major names of football use the MLS as a final big payday before retirement e.g.Pele,Beckham,Henry. Therefore it will always be below par compared to football around the world.

  7. What is wrong with using top European clubs as a standard for MLS? It is a great opportunity for Americans to watch top clubs play and does show some of the strides made by MLS. Will MLS ever be a top league? Only if soccer becomes as big in the US as American Football, Basketball and Baseball. We need big money to bring top players to our clubs. We need infrastructure to develop more of our own world class players.
    I say keep the matches going. Great for awareness of soccer and a lot of fun!

  8. I can’t agree. It depends on what each US team hopes to achieve with competitions such as this. If it’s notoriety, they achieve that with a win or a (in the case of the Sounders) awful/comical loss.

    If it’s financial gain, they do that with increased crowds.

    If it’s inspiring the youngsters, European teams/players like United or Mario Balotelli are far more likely to do so than (not picking on him, just an example) Kasey Keller.

    If it’s it’s league-wide improvement, hell, I’ll say it – these matches should/could/might give their players something to shoot for.

    I do agree however, that the greatest problem is that it so disrupts the season. It may be time to suggest that teams juggling CONCACAF CL football and a successful MLS campaign refrain from taking part.

    To slow a league down for what amounts to 2-3 weeks of publicity screams “needy”. But the reality is that’s what MLS is at the moment and these matches only improve public awareness.

    A change of such magnitude isn’t built on individual moments like WC ’94 or the birth of MLS etc. It’s from stringing a series of them together to raise the sport in the public consciousness: that’s what these matches do best.