By Paul Gardner
Like it or not -- and most of us would at least make a pretense of objecting -- scorelines are the vital building blocks of all sports. The only indisputable things that allow us to make judgments and comparisons, the relentless realities that mean triumph or disaster, fame or infamy.
And that wasn’t true what I just said about them being indisputable -- they’re probably all disputed by someone, somewhere at some time, or even all the time. It’s just that they get into the archives and then all the controversy that might surround them doesn’t matter any more. History, and the printed word, have spoken. Such scorelines are there to be accepted -- not interpreted.
I have before me a scoreline: Manchester United 7 Seattle Sounders 0. Pretty bad. Knowing, as I do, that Sigi Schmid has apologized to the Sounders fans, knowing also that he substituted in a virtually second-string team for the second half (when six of the goals were scored) makes no difference. The stark story told by the numbers is that Seattle, one of the better MLS teams, was shockingly outclassed by ManU. In front of 64,000 fans, mostly, I presume, Sounders supporters.
At which point any moderately sane person is going to ask why MLS teams are playing these games in which the chances are high that they will get beaten, or quite possibly thrashed. Did Commissioner Don Garber or anyone else at MLS, need the Sounders to be publicly ridiculed before they accept that MLS is not up to the level of the EPL?
Doubtful. So why are MLS teams playing in this so-called World Football Challenge that inserts 14 high-profile games into the already crowded MLS season? This tournament first popped up in 2009, a four-team event organized by a non-soccer group from Los Angeles, Creative Artists Agency (CAA). MLS teams were not involved in 2009. The WFC was not played last year, the summer being fully taken up by the World Cup.
But the WFC is back. Not only are five MLS clubs taking part, but we find that MLS is now a co-organizer along with CAA. A crude case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The WFC had shown in 2009 that there was plenty of money to be made by bringing in top foreign teams to play each other and charging pretty fancy prices for the tickets.
The WFC, with glamour teams like Chelsea and Inter Milan, looked capable of simply obliterating interest in MLS during a three-week spell in the middle of its season. Difficult to imagine how that was going to help the sport, particularly the MLS version, grow.
But helping soccer to succeed in the USA was never part of the CAA agenda. Making money was. What would you expect from an organizing group -- of Americans -- that names its tournament -- to be staged in the USA -- the World Football Challenge? That deliberate snubbing of the word soccer, tells you immediately that the WFC cared nothing for the American game or about Major League Soccer.
Well OK -- if the American fans show themselves willing to pay the hefty ticket prices to see the foreign heavyweights there’s not much to be done about it. Under that despairing sort of thinking, the MLS decision to help organize a money-making tournament that disrupts its own season and embarrasses its own clubs may make, at least, financial sense.
Talking finance, I should point out that there is a sleeping partner here, one that, without lifting a finger, will do very nicely out of the WFC. Namely, the U.S. Soccer Federation, which rakes in 9% of the gate money from games featuring two foreign teams (8 WFC games), and 5.25% from the six games featuring an American (i.e. MLS) team. An income of several million (some of which gets passed on to FIFA and to Concacaf).
But does MLS have to go so far as to demean itself and kneel down in front of the big name clubs? In come the big European names and suddenly the artificial turf fields in Seattle and Vancouver -- which have so far been deemed good enough for MLS games -- must be replaced with grass fields to accommodate the foreigners. Vancouver made such a mess of laying down its new grass that its scheduled MLS game against Real Salt Lake had to be called off because the field was waterlogged. The game, says MLS, will be re-scheduled. It should not be, it should be deemed a forfeit win for RSL. I can’t think of any reason why RSL should be required to suffer as a result of Vancouver’s efforts (or is it the league’s?) to kowtow to the WFC.
The Los Angeles Galaxy’s Bruce Arena -- who else would it be? -- has spoken out against the way that the WFC is structured to favor the foreign clubs: “The whole tournament is set up to accommodate them. Our needs are not addressed at all.” The Galaxy, currently the best team in MLS, were taken apart by Real Madrid, 4-1 -- more very public evidence to fuel the argument of those who like to scoff at MLS as a rinky-dink league, an argument further strengthened by the fact that the MLS teams are supposedly fully fit and operational in mid-season while the foreign are only beginning their preseason training -- and Arena made the point that the WFC’s liberal substitution regulations made things easier for the visiting clubs, which have bigger -- and stronger -- rosters.
So far, we’ve seen the New England Revs and the Sounders mauled by ManU, and the Galaxy brushed aside by Real Madrid. The Vancouver Whitecaps -- as it happens, currently the worst team in MLS -- did a bit better in a 2-1 loss to Manchester City, but that game was reduced to a farce by the cow-pasture field produced by the newly laid turf.
Three more games featuring MLS teams remain to be played. We are asked to believe that these ritual sacrifices of the MLS teams are a good thing, that the MLS players “learn” from them. Maybe they do. But being forced to go through a brutal learning experience slap-bang in the middle of your own season does not sound like good timing.
Nor does it suggest that MLS is taking its own regular season very seriously. Which adds another arrow to the bow of those critics who maintain that MLS regular season games verge on the meaningless because the playoff system deprives them of significance.