By Paul Gardner
Comparisons being, we are told, odious, here is a small slice of odiousness to get things going. On Saturday, there were five games in Spain's premier division, La Liga. Five games in which 28 goals were scored. Average, 5.6 goals per game. Also on Saturday, there were five games in MLS. During which 11 goals were scored -- average, 2.2 per game.
A bit unfair, the comparison, I’ll admit, because the Spanish scoring is obviously unusually high. But having all those games available for watching within the same time period was a sharp reminder of just what a difference goals make to the enjoyment of the sport.
The Spanish games were, all of them, lively, eventful, and always contained the promise of excitement and action ... and goals.
Of the MLS games, three more or less met those criteria. The other two were frankly boring.
The reminder I’m talking about is one that should be heard loudest in the halls and corridors of the MLS palace in New York City. What MLS needs, more this season than in almost any other, is vibrant soccer. On the field. Where the ball rolls, where the players run. Where the goals go in. And where the spectators pay their money to be entertained.
Exciting soccer is so important this year because MLS is a bit short on other attractions. No new teams. No new stadiums. And no knock-your-socks-off player signings.
Question ... to you: how do you respond to what I’m saying? Are you thinking that I’m saying MLS is falling off the pace, that it’s about to suffer a setback year? If you are, forget it -- that’s not at all how I’m viewing things.
I’m suggesting that this year ought to be a revelation year for MLS. It ought to be the year in which the league, unable to claim and to be satisfied with, expansion and stadium-building and marketing triumphs, can now turn its energy and its thinking to the game itself. It can take serious steps to make sure that MLS soccer is an attractive, action-packed, and goal-scoring activity.
There is another way of wording that. … MLS can now take serious steps to make sure its product is attractive, etc, etc. A wording that one often hears, and a wording that should cause huge shudders in any true soccer devotee. Because it is a marketing phrase, and it brings with it all the mindless marketing distractions that get in the way of serious thought about the game itself. Using the word “product” to describe soccer immediately reduces it to a commercial commodity, something always liable to be overwhelmed by the packaging and the catch-phrases and the ad campaigns.
To the marketing mind, improving the product will include things like shirt designs, field advertising, horrendous in-stadium announcers, moronic slogans, all those commercial deals with their irrelevant “official products” ... and, to lapse into the marketing argot, much, much more.
The influence of marketing upon the game is now widespread, and it is insidious. The borderline between what is genuinely useful to the playing of the sport, and what is merely so much snake oil becomes more and more difficult to discern.
A visit to the annual NSCAA convention is revealing. This huge annual gathering of the nation’s coaches, from pro to youth levels, features a massive exhibition hall packed with “exhibitors.” Quite a change from the first NSCAA convention I attended -- in 1967 I think -- when there was just one exhibitor.
These days, the event is more like a trade fair than a convention. Many, maybe most, of the exhibitors are selling products directly related to the game on the field -- shirts, shoes, goalkeeper gloves (all “improved” designs, it goes without saying), training systems, magic formations, computer setups, and so on. But the almost comical thing is that there is no guarantee that any of them works. The marketing, of course, says they all work. Your team will probably never lose another game if you wear these uniforms or those shoes or adopt this training system or that formation.
Search the literature -- or ask at the booths -- for proof of these magnificent claims and see how far that gets you. Well, that’s marketing for you. That’s the baggage with which the sport is now saddled, or has saddled itself. It’s not going to go away, so the sport itself -- that is, the real soccer people -- have to learn how to put it in its place.
For this MLS season, it would be nice to think that marketing can be put on hold for a year. I mean, that its pervasive meddling with the playing of the game can be held at bay for a year, while MLS’s soccer brain-power comes to grips with whatever needs to be done, or can realistically be attempted, to jazz up its version of the sport.
Like it or not -- and I do not -- we are back to marketing. MLS, after all, is trying to sell soccer to American consumers. It has a sport that does pretty well, worldwide. Amazingly well, actually. But we know that there are special circumstances that apply in the USA. MLS knows that it cannot simply bang on about “soccer” as though the sport is a standard activity that looks the same wherever and however it is played. At least, one hopes that MLS knows that.
I shall assume MLS does know -- if only because I don’t see how it can not know. I can therefore assume that MLS, this season, can focus its thinking on what sort of soccer it wants to see played on its fields, and what sort of players and coaches and -- equally important -- what sort of referees it wants to encourage. Some recent highly encouraging events in this country will -- or should -- have pointed the way ahead. I am ever hopeful -- though not wildly so -- that, for a while, the gaudy and often tawdry trappings of marketing can be put aside, to be replaced by a genuine concern for true soccer matters. No, we can’t guarantee 5.6 goals a game. But 2.2 should be seen as a challenge. It is simply not good enough.