[MLS SPOTLIGHT] Attractive play, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder, but there’s not much room for argument that of the two conferences, there have been more and brighter stars out West for the past few seasons.
Chicago with Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Crew in the days of Guillermo Barros Schelotto flew the flag for flair as best they could, and the free-spending Red Bulls have fairly recently taken on a sexier persona. The Revs, always accused of being pedestrian even with Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston, have added Benny Feilhaber to brighten up their play. D.C. United hasn’t come close to what it had a few years ago with Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez. In its four-plus seasons Toronto FC has churned through an incredible number of players in a futile effort to be both enjoyable and successful.
Landon Donovan (San Jose and Los Angeles) has always played out West, and before he left for Belgium, Sacha Kljestan was just one of several attractive attackers fielded by Chivas USA. The Western luster had dimmed somewhat, notably in Houston, which lost Stuart Holden to Europe after trading Dwayne De Rosario to Toronto. De Ro has since moved onto New York, and now the Dynamo – with league assist leader Brad Davis – plays in the East to make room for expansion teams Portland and Vancouver.
Yet still, the Western Conference featured – in addition to Donovan and David Beckham of the so-named Galaxy -- Steve Zakuani (Seattle), 2010 MVP David Ferreira (FC Dallas), and Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake). All three are exciting, talented, daring players, the very sort MLS labors to sign because of its byzantine acquisition processes and stringent budgetary limitations.
They are the high-wire walkers who defy the opposition and thrill the crowd, but they won’t be seen for a few months at least. All three are sidelined by serious injury, and aside from sapping their teams of sorely needed creativity and experience, games in which they would have played just won’t be as good. Beyond the DP-studded Galaxy and Red Bulls, MLS and its broadcast partners haven’t done a lot of promotion around other players, which is perhaps one reason the league’s TV ratings are stagnant.
Their absences may or may not affect home crowds. Seattle has been selling out for most of its existence but if the Sounders can’t regain momentum without Zakuani, those attendances might dip a bit, as expectations from fans and management are high. FC Dallas, despite a winning and enthralling style of play, isn’t among the attendance leaders and only time will tell if its loss shows up in the crowd counts. RSL has instilled a fairly strong loyalty among its customers preaching “the team is the star”; a terrible silence descended upon Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday in the aftermath of a savage tackle that fractured Morales’ left ankle, yet it’s unlikely many fans will stay away.
As the Galaxy-Red Bulls match showed, there can be reasonably good periods of touch and movement and intelligence and savvy in an MLS match, if a few players are skilled enough to raise the level of the players around them. In the absence of Zakuani, Ferreira and Morales, their teams will still compete, but they won’t be as competitive, and certainly not as much fun to watch, which a league struggling to bolster its national identity through marketing of stars and televised games really can’t afford.