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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @reporterandrew.