By Paul Gardner
The temptation to stick it to the Eurosnobs -- again -- is bubbling within me. I shall resist it. Or I shall try, though I might as well point out that I have just finished watching the Kansas City Wizards beat Manchester United. The Wizards playing all the second half with 10 men, also needs mentioning.
While I’m about it I might as well tell you that earlier this afternoon (Sunday, that is) I ventured into deepest New Jersey -- oddly, that’s where you have to go should you want to see the MLS’s New York team -- and saw the Red Bulls beat Manchester City 2-1.
All of which sounds great for MLS -- but which is actually notas great as it sounds. Because these games are not what they profess to be, certainly not what they’re advertised as. It’s hardly a secret that both Manchester teams are on tour without their best players.
So ManU takes the field without Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, and Man City presents itself shorn of Carlos Tevez and Gareth Barry and Shaun Wright- Phillips and then players like Darren Fletcher and Nani and Craig Bellamy and Kolo Toure, who are here, spend most of their time on the bench.
Obviously, someone isn’t taking these games too seriously. But that is supposed to be OK, because we’ve been told, repeatedly that these are preseason tours for the European clubs, so they’re really more interested in trying out young players than in winning games.
Which is the point at which MLS lays itself open to criticism. Is the USA or is it not a sophisticated soccer nation? Has it by now developed enough knowledge of the game to sort out the good from the bad, the real from the synthetic? If it hasn’t yet reached that stage, has it at least got past the point where naivete rules and foreign clubs (let us say, European clubs) can rely on making money here with a “preseason tour,” even though they send attenuated teams and use the games as tryouts and warmups?
My feeling is that the comparative success of these tours is likely to be short-lived. As it should be, because the American fans are being short-changed. The Red Bulls opened their splendid stadium earlier this year with a game against the legendary Santos of Brazil, the club Pele made famous. A farce, for Santos sent a reserve team and got duly hammered 4-1. A result that sent the Red Bull fans home happy, but a little of that sort of happiness, at those prices, goes a long way.
Take heed -- there was a time, in the New York area, in the late 1950s and early 1960s when promoters brought in top foreign teams -- Santos, with Pele, was a favorite -- who arrived with all their stars, to play exciting games before huge crowds.
Yet within a couple of years the market vanished -- because the teams started leaving their stars at home, or making it clear they weren’t that interested in the results anyway -- so the fans stopped turning up. There was a lot to regret in the disappearance of those games, but the New York fans had made a point -- they were not to be conned into paying over the odds for an inferior product.
And here’s the current oddity: which is the group of fans most likely to be conned today? Why, those knowledgeable guys, our old friends the Eurosnobs. So they’ll turn up to support “their” teams that, given the substitutions, are barely recognizable. Just how long they will go on paying to watch them lose, I do not know -- but I doubt their patience will last long.
Yes, the reverse side of all that would seem to bring nothing but advantages to MLS and its clubs. The results look good, and the soccer that has been played by the winning MLS teams has been entirely praiseworthy. Even so, it would be nice to hear a firm voice from the Americans -- whether they be MLS or the fans themselves or the TV commentators. Not a hostile voice but one that makes it clear, as New Yorkers did 50 years ago, that there are plenty of soccer savvy fans here who would prefer not to be served up a shadow of the real thing.
I mentioned the TV commentators, who are inevitably among the most prominent in conveying attitudes. Does it help the growth of a sturdy, confident American soccer community, that they have to listen to Max Bretos and Taylor Twellman on ESPN2 fawning and swooning and gushing over Man U, with Twellman explaining that “it’s the mystique of Man U, it’s the red jerseys, walking into the tunnel and seeing players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, you come out to see Sir Alex Ferguson coaching the team ... it’s unbelievable.”
Players like Scholes and Giggs? -- neither of whom has ever made any impact on the world game -- and Sir Alex Ferguson (note the “Sir”) -- whatever all that is (how about exciting, or impressive?) -- it is definitely not “unbelievable.”
The foreigners come with weakened teams and they give playing time to promising youngsters. I find that fascinating, particularly right now, with England coming off a pathetic World Cup performance. So we’re getting a chance to look at some of the top English 19/20-year-olds. We’ve seen Tom Cleverly and Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling of ManU, Tottenham’s Danny Rose and Jonathan Obika and Andros Townsend, and Man City’s Ben Mee and Andrew Tuttle and Alex Nimely.
Having watched that group, and others, over the past week or so, I find it difficult to imagine a reborn England, so ordinary was the talent on view. Therein lies another reason for being a good deal more temperate in praising Man U -- or any of the Euro clubs currently touring the USA. They are also here as predators, looking for young American talent that they can whisk away to Europe. Not one of the more obvious ways of helping the development of MLS.