[MLS] After trailing the Los Angeles Galaxy, 2-0, at halftime at the buzzing Rose Bowl, packed with 89,134 fans, the real Real Madrid smoked the top-ranked MLS team for three goals in 19 minutes. A 3-2 win might have been by a larger score, for once Real cranked up the intensity, no one in a Galaxy uniform could provide much help for backup keeper Josh Saunders, who twice conceded follow-up goals on rebounds of superb saves.
For the Galaxy, a scrappy goal (Todd Dunivant) and a penalty kick (Landon Donovan); for Real Madrid -- dull in the first half except for Sergio Canales and Angel Di Maria – a starry display after halftime, a pair of goals by Gonzalo Higuain, and a winner from Xabi Alonso.
Last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year, Omar Gonzalez, banged a header off the post that led to Dunivant’s goal and looked secure in the first 45 minutes but, like his teammates, scrambled futilely to contain the visitors once they got serious. This wasn’t the corny cliche, “a game of two halves,” this was a meeting of two worlds.
This gap in quality and talent -- albeit in a friendly pockmarked by numerous substitutions -- is the future of the game in America. MLS teams can max out with three Designated Players and will thus gleam brighter in the rather dank confines of Concacaf, but with otherwise stringent budgetary restraints and limited opportunities for outside competition there’s only slim hope that an MLS champion could match up with even a mid-tier opponent in a top European or South American league.
Fortunately, MLS has come to terms with this dichotomy of foreign club teams on preseason jaunts filling big stadiums, and a few solid MLS representatives growing more and more resentful of propping up straggling brethren content if their mini-facilities are two-thirds full.
Ambitious, aggressive organizations willing and able to spend real money now have license to do so, and don’t think for a second that AEG president Tim Leiweke looked at a crowd of nearly 90,000 and the caliber of players in Real colors and thought, “We still have a ways to go.”
Five years ago, Real played the Galaxy at Home Depot Center, and a great night it was for the 27,000 fans – one of the few bonafide packed houses for a team that has claimed dozens of “sellouts” – filling the seats, the walkways, the concession stands, and the grass berm overlooking the north goal.
Wearing the white Real jersey that night, David Beckham glistened in a galaxy of bright lights and a torrent of buzz that would lead to him to sign with MLS a year and a half later. In a postgame interview, Leiweke dropped a very unsubtle hint of which Real player he wanted to change the face of soccer in America.
Critics can rightly claim Beckham failed on the field, but for the purposes of marketing and allure and attracting other international stars, he succeeded. Despite a few failures, and the trade of Freddie Ljunberg from Seattle to Chicago, DPs have raised the league’s profile, and MLS is now at least a possible destination for players rather than a bargaining chip tossed into the pot by cagey agents.
In the same month – January 2007 – that Beckham signed with MLS, Gonzalo Higuain (19 at the time) and Fernando Gago (20) officially joined Real following transfers from River Plate and Boca Juniors, respectively, for combined fees of 33.4 million euros (about $44 million at the time). While in the ensuing three and a half years, MLS has been aggressively pursuing young players in addition to opening up the DP coffers, it’s still light years away from those kind of purchases and competing on the field with teams who can sign them. Manchester City is bidding 40 million pounds (more than $60 million) for Higuain and Gago.
At the Rose Bowl, the only DP on display, Landon Donovan, played reasonably well and coolly dispatched a penalty kick in first-half stoppage time. Edson Buddle forced a pair of good saves from keeper Jerzy Dudek before Todd Dunivant poked a loose ball over the goal line during a furious melee in the six-yard box.
Donovan converted a penalty awarded when Royston Ricky Drenthe’s high kick caught Juninho in the face, a terribly clumsy --and inadvertent -- example of a rather turgid display by Real. After halftime instructions and motivational statements from Coach Jose Mourinho, a different Real -- spiced up by 10 substitutions -- emerged from the locker room. The Galaxy – a blend of starters and backups mixed and matched by Coach Bruce Arena – couldn’t keep up.
Cristiano Ronaldo glided free in the 52nd minute to center a ball that Higuain put away, and 10 minutes later, after a great save by Saunders, the Argentine gobbled up a pass from compatriot Gago to slip through a challenge and stab a remarkable shot into the top corner, far post with the outside of his foot.
The former Cal keeper had replaced Donovan Ricketts at halftime. Ricketts twice stopped Angel Di Maria with Real in low gear; Saunders faced the Spanish team at full throttle. He stoned Higuain a few minutes later following a sneaky back-heel from Canales, but Xabi Alonso collected the rebound and shot quickly from the right side. The ball glanced off Eddie Lewis and dipped over Saunders inside the far post.
Results in these games aren’t definitive, as was the case when Kansas City beat Manchester United, which then thumped the MLS All-Stars.
Fans come to enjoy the show and will support the soccer they feel is worthy of their time and money. The league’s path to sustainability is rooted in both worlds, that of international glamour and domestic stability. When those worlds meet, all that matters is the bottom line, not the scoreline.