Featured, Major League Soccer

As Scoring Goes, So Goes MLS, And Other Thoughts on Week One

Casual, and even die-hard, US Soccer Fans can forgive Bravo's history with El Tri...so long as he scores goals like he did this weekend.

By Andrew Villegas

What did we learn from Week 1 of the MLS season?

As scoring goes, so will go the MLS and the popularity of soccer in America.

Americans love scoring. And it’s why the collective “they” of the American sports psyche have
kept soccer at an arm’s length for so long: “Why would I watch a bunch of European-looking
guys in long socks (strike one) run around in short shorts (strike two) for 90 minutes when they
only score once if at all (Strike three. You’re out.)?” It’s why Landon Donovan denounces the
New England Revolution’s defensive tactics against his team in week one, even if the tactic was
perfectly suited for the Rev on a rainy Saturday night game against a superior opponent on the Galaxy’s home field.

When your leading star starts complaining about defensive tactics, the mandate from the top is clear: Score. Early and often.

But that’s why week 1 of the MLS season did the best it could at giving fans hope that the league
will eventually attract new followers.

Indeed, MLS fans — as well as casual American/Canadian sports observers — got a load
of good striking. A trio of braces: DC United’s Charlie Davies’ two, Sporting KC’s Omar Bravo’s
two and Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s Eric Hassli’s two as well as Juninho’s two great goals in two games from outside the penalty area. Plus, one of the top USMNT prospects — NYRB Juan Agudelo — has a game-winner.

Even if the MLS is painted as a non-technical league for the time being, the abundance of strikers makes for exciting sports for the casual observer.

At all levels of football strikers are the most revered and most public faces of a club. They sell
jerseys and they give casual fans something to talk about. And all sports leagues – as they mature
– try to increase scoring: The NBA did it with the shot-clock and three point line, the NHL did
it by restricting physical and goalie play and MLB did it by making smaller parks and allowing hotter balls and bats.

And for now, MLS seems to be reaping the benefits of their investment in top-drawer scorers. Top soccer plays from around the world are now regular parts of ESPN’s hallowed “Top 10” plays of the day, further increasing the sport’s visibility. That’s not to say the league has become the post-college, real-world, oh-crap-I-have-a-car-house-loan-payment-now version of itself. There’s still plenty of room to grow. The MLS owners have to decide if parity, which is given lip-service overseas in the form of the chance at league promotion and relegation when in reality club finances decide such moves, is the best course of action or if they want to allow the Galaxy and Red Bulls to become the two-horse-race of MLS.

And still, MLS struggles to have much clout in the sports broadcasting world: ESPN will broadcast only 4 MLS games nationally on its flagship network, though there will be a decidedly better 17 on ESPN 2. Between MLS subscription based “Direct Kick,” the ESPN family of networks and Fox Soccer Channel and a bevy of Spanish-language networks, all 306 games of the MLS regular season will be broadcast, but much of it will be on a basically “pay-per-view” basis and a whole swath of America cannot see most nationally televised games on Fox Soccer Channel in HD.

The immense popularity of the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps, particularly among 20-somethings, is a sign the game is growing to important demographics.

But MLS has at least a couple other things working for it that other sports in America don’t have. Fed up with mainstream American sports, the taste-making 20-somethings in the Pacific Northwest have added Timbers, Whitecaps and Sounders tattoos to their full-length sleeve tattoos and they bring their pre-infant, swanky microbeer-chugging money with them.

By their very nature, lots of those fans look must feel that “If many Americans are mystified by it, I have an obligation to at least give it a closer look.” Yes, it’s the same attitude that gentrifies the bad neighborhoods with what some might term “hipsters” in America that makes the Sounders and Timbers popular, and MLS does well to ride that wave.

If MLS can continue to improve on one thing a year (and some years more than one) then they’re on their way of growing the sport in America. This weekend was a great opportunity for MLS to start on its way to being mentioned as a major sport in America alongside American football, baseball and basketball, but there are improvements to be made. That means we’re likely to see even more moves for strikers, bigger pitches, better athletes and more money spent on young, up-and-coming forward talent before they bolt for Europe (see Teal Bunbury, Agudelo, Omar Salgado if he lives up to the hype machine, Danny Mwanga, and the not-young, but certainly European-caliber Omar Cummings).

Keep scoring, and America will come.

Speaking of strikers, a note about Charlie Davies at RFK Stadium on Saturday night. I had the privilege to watch CD9 in person Saturday night and to watch him begin his comeback

with a PK goal and a hustle goal and two things stick out:

When the penalty was called that allowed Charlie Davies to score his first competitive goal in more than a year, Davies stood on the PK spot. There was no doubt from anyone who was going to take that penalty, even from Charlie himself. He raised his hand at the spot as the referee and D.C. United players bustled around the spot where Chris Pontius was fouled in the box just a split second earlier. Bewildered and wide-eyed, Davies huddled with Dax before stepping up and smoothly slotting it home.

Second: Davies is near close to being as fast as he was pre-accident. He seems a little hesitant to make the striking, slalom runs he used to make, but next to Andy Najar, D.C. United’s feisty winger, Davies looked comparable in speed and comfortable with the ball at his feet as he took advantage of a fallen Chad Marshall to slot away his second. It’s obviously far too early to tell how Davies will react long-term to the rigors of first-team play week in and week out, and he may have been riding only the euphoric high from returning from life-threatening injuries to a crowd that adores him, but Davies certainly looked a class above much of the Columbus Crew’s back four Saturday, and Bob Bradley must surely be watching the highlights over and over again.

Andrew Villegas is a former Colorado newspaper journalist now working (on his form, among other things) in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at andrew.villegas@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @reporterandrew.

Andrew Villegas

  • great article, on a lighter note do you think if there is a significant rise in goals over the course of the season we should start asking why barry bonds and jose canseco keep walking in and out of mls locker rooms… or will we just blame large goals and weaker goalies 🙂

    but maybe more serious do you think a way to increase goals would be to call more penalties in the box so the defense is forced to be less physical and therefore allow more opportunities for the offense to score when in possession? i cant think of alot of other ways to increase scoring in the mls… the jabulani definitely didn’t help in the world cup to increase goals when many thought it could

    • Chewy59

      Jake, I think you hit the nail on the head. That was also supposed to be an area the referees focused on in the World Cup… especially on free kicks outside the box. If you can eliminate all the shirt clutching and arm grabbing in the box that will lead to more highlight reel goals off IFKs and thats only one aspect of it. As Americans are well aware, that stricter enforcement really did not happen.

      I have been trying since its inception to get into the MLS and the biggest problems I’ve had with watching it is the gratuitous physicality. I am all for physical play, but when you go live to games and see the defenders blatantly playing the man and making no attempt on the ball go uncalled, it just reinforces the idea that the MLS is not to be taken seriously. It really seemed like every time a GK punted the ball or there was a long clearance that allowed players from each team to settle under it… the player with best position would jump for it while the rear defender would just shove him. The last game I was at I could count it happening at least a dozen times. Plus the stupid tactics of runs to nowhere and instead of carrying the ball with no one on you the winger plays a cross into a crowd of 3-4 defenders who easily head it away. With that said, I just recently moved to DC so I am going to give the United a chance.

      As for the jabulani… it was an half baked idea from the start. I understand the concept that if the ball is unpredictable that it will create more goals as goalkeepers will not be able to stop it as efficiently. However, it was overlooking one key aspect. If the ball is unpredictable then the shooter will not be able to place it with any sort of accuracy either.

      I had an opportunity this summer to play with a match caliber jabulani and it was fun. I could put a ton of knuckling action into all my strikes. However, I nor anyone else could not control it worth a damn. The ball had a tendency to rise quite a bit and sail. Now I would have chalked it up to the fact that I was a goalkeeper in my playing days not a world class striker… but in watching the World Cup it became clear to me at least that unless your name was Diego Forlan you probably had a very similar issue with ball control as I did. Anyway, thats just my 2 cents

      • daniel

        agree with your point on tactics. i watched the LA-SEA opener and it was maddening how often LA attempted to play the ball in the air, and not just in the final third. landon was lifting passes all over the pitch and losing possession 90% of the time. really dreadful.

    • Jon

      germany shoulda given my boy hitzlsperger a shot at that jabulani, probably would have hoisted the cup. Der Hammer’s shot is a 100 mile an hour rocket with sclapel precision. he would have made fifa’s jabulani dreams come true.

      • jon, second germany nt reference in a couple of days… you a fan of der mannschaft? I lived in berlin for 2 years, loved it… mostly because doenner kebabs but due to the awesome soccer atmosphere

  • daniel

    that agudelo goal was strong. just 17 and he made that sounders CB look stupid.

  • Jon

    andrew, welcome to TYAC! great all-around look at MLS and the first weekend.

    now here’s my question: what’s more important to the growth of the MLS and its fan base, an increase in offense or the continual raising of the standard of play. i mean we’ve seen what happens when the standard of play stagnates and goals incease, just look south. granted, the mexican league is fun to watch and it’s immensely popular down there, but would anyone who reads this blog take a mexican league match over say, a Rangers-Celtic matchup which could be a 1-0 affair? Probably not, even if you take the Old Firm intrigue out of the Glasgow match and focus strictly on the game.

    So is an increase in goals a way to “trick” casual fans and non-soccer watchers into caring about the MLS? Should the MLS just focus on getting better overall in order to grow the sport in “the right way”? Or are goals a valid way to attract fans? Like the legions of hockey fans who were first turned onto the sport by Gretzky and the Oilers or Lemieux’s Penguins and still watch today?

    Sorry I don’t have the answers (maybe just some not-so-veiled opinions), but I want to know what Andrew and our readers think.

    • daniel

      i don’t think you necessarily have to look at it as goals-abound vs standard of play. i also don’t think more goals=more fans. even if your average mls match ends up 4-2 i think those who want to be bored by “low scoring” will be. it’s more about open vs compact games. i’d like the mls to encourage an open game. from a dispassionate point of view (ie, if my team isn’t involved) i’ll take an open nil nil game of attacking football over a 4-1 thumping any day. after all, how boring are basketball games that end 121-92?