By Andrew Villegas
People looking to glean some sort of noble truth about the MLS by how it performs against heavyweights in their preseason are often met with a scoff and a few spoken caveats: It’s preseason, and the players have come a long way – often just returning back to playing form – for games that mean little more than a revenue/publicity boost for both.
But the games, oft-touted and much-hyped as they are, aren’t devoid of meaning either. MLS managers are increasingly turning to their benches for these games – just like their big name managing counterparts – in order to relieve the toll a long season and (increasingly in MLS- over forty MLS players were called into tournaments this summer) international duty takes on many of their players. That’s progress. No longer are MLS managers using every tool in their arsenal to try to prove they belong at the adult table at Thanksgiving. They’re fighting over the last scrap of stuffing with the cousins who have come a long way for dinner.
And let’s get one thing straight. The players on both teams don’t want to lose. Any game. Ever. Well, maybe Robinho does every now and then. But you get the point.
That all said, MLS still struggles against opponents from overseas. Scott French runs it down at ESPN. The total so far? “In 13 friendlies against European clubs – two of them, D.C. United’s and Portland’s losses to Ajax Amsterdam, from May – MLS clubs are 2-8-1 and have been outscored, 27-9.,” French writes.
Yes, the Philadelphia Union did beat a Tim Howard-less Everton. Yes, the San Jose Earthquakes beat West Bromwich Albion (which featured a crazy goal by SJ’s goalkeeper David Bingham), but the 7-0 Seattle Sounders loss to Manchester United will be remembered for a long time by MLS detractors. “See?” they’ll say. “That’s the difference between American and proper English Football. Seven goals in 90 minutes.” And they’d be right. That is the difference between the European champion and an American team that’s (for MLS’ intents and purposes) two years old.
But it shouldn’t be easy for the steamroller, and it’s not. A bit of prodding on the Toffees’ manager David Moyes likely elicited this response: “Every time we’ve come to America we’ve found the games really tough.”
Still, some adherents to American Exceptionalism will show you with their indifference that if Americans can’t be the best at something, well, then we shouldn’t try at all. Others say it’s the problem with soccer in this country.
But losing is the best motivator. For owners that care about growing their brand, beating big teams means getting the eyeballs from the casual fans, also from Sportscenter, that they so covet. For players, it means greater exposure to playing soccer at the highest level, which can bring international caps and looks from overseas. For fans, it means that they don’t have to play second fiddle to European clubs with big followings in the U.S.
If MLS teams start winning these games, preseason form or not, we’re a lot less likely to see so many Barcelona/Man United/Arsenal shirts at American soccer games. (The pleas to stop such behavior grow loud, as in this excellent piece by our friends at the Free Beer Movement.) And then maybe you’ll find the enormous contingents of big club fans living in the big US cities attaching themselves to their MLS sides. This would be better than seeing countless Invincibles reminders at a Red Bulls game, for example.
International friendlies are a better stunt, if you would term it so, and no matter the outcome, they’re preferable to having Hope Solo play in the MLS. An aside here: That last sentence is not to detract from Solo’s skills, but, folks, Solo plays on a team already, even if they’re named after an infomercial. It seems an odd sort of sexist that America would make the case for Solo to play on an MLS team while ignoring other great female players. The implication is: “Well, Hope, you’re too GOOD to play on a team with a bunch of GIRLS.” Please. If the Women’s World Cup taught most casual American soccer fans anything– it’s that those girls can play, and yes– they play attractive football.
It’s a hard truth, but teams that want to get better, and do get better, play international friendlies. They travel to do so. They line their pockets with the proceedings. They use the opportunity to get valuable experience for their youth.
To be fair, there isn’t much ado about MLS teams stopping these games or playing less of them. In fact, it’s heartening to see people with such anger after the losses. Fleeting are the days of “Oh, well, they’re supposed to beat us that badly.” Here are the days of “Maybe Fredy Montero can show Rooney a little something tonight.”
Lately, even Bruce Arena has weighed in, saying that winning these exhibitions aren’t as important as the showcase is. Youth soccer, many say – one of the keys to developing a great international team – should also focus less on winning big tournaments and focus more on skill development. It’s a bitter pill for us to swallow; we’re used to and expect winning. And I’m not arguing that the two are ever mutually exclusive. But indeed, for young MLS players the development boost they get by playing against an English Premier League side is invaluable to both their development and to the development of a club struggling like a colt to run alongside its mighty steed parent. Don’t believe me– ask Stu Holden. His second “look” abroad mostly stemmed from being one of the best players on the pitch in one of those exhibitions. And now he’s one of the best players on the pitch weekly. That’s progress.
And the international friendly season is longer now for MLS. Used to be only the L.A. Galaxy would get in on the action, now even the youngest MLS teams get a look at European football royalty.
And they’re not even asking for autographs!
Andrew Villegas writes about Major League Soccer for The Yanks Are Coming. You can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew and you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.