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2013: A chance for MLS to look beyond the marketing
by Paul Gardner, April 8th, 2013 1:36AM

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TAGS:  mls

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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.



28 comments
  1. Lance Cummins
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 3:29 a.m.
    I like seeing some goals scored. But I do not like watching ping pong soccer either. The games in the Netherlands are not always high scoring but they are great soccer to watch. Good defense can be very exciting.

  1. Martha Diop
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 6:13 a.m.
    I believe that we all have to realize how much marketing affects every aspect of our lives (education, health, entertainment, even politics.) And always never shy of pouring in billions of dollars As far as soccer (or MLS) is concerned, could not an advantage be drawn, by getting more bucks from the marketeers and make the tickets free or dirt cheap to boost game attendance? Maybe a stupid or crazy idea

  1. Jim Williams
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 8:01 a.m.
    Making tickets free only makes your sport look as if it can't make it on it's own. At this point in time for MLS that would be a setback. I do agree with Paul in the fact that I would like to see more goal scoring. Like it or not this is the USA and people do like to see scores on the board. Maybe FIFA should consider a change. 0-0 ties get no points. That may be an incentive for teams to start moving instead of playing bunker defense looking for a tie.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 8:30 a.m.
    Good idea, Jim. I think the MLS could do that on their own. Although we'd all love to see more skillful offensive players, better refs, attack-minded coaches, I'm not sure there's anything we can do to improve those areas (that we're not already trying to do). I think a guaranteed way to increase goal scoring would be to make the goals slightly bigger. We could actually see the effect on the scores without doing anything; just keep track of how many shots hit the crossbar or posts, and assume they would go in on a goal that was 6" bigger on all sides. I think we'd see more 4-3 games, and fewer 0-0 draws. As a defender, I appreciate good defense (and yes, there can be exciting 0-0 draws, but many are not; and I don't think I've ever seen a boring 4-3 game). Such a move might lead to more lopsided scores (5-0 instead of 2 or 3-0), which can be boring (though still better than most 0-0 games), but it might also mean that teams would have less of an incentive to defend with 10 players in the penalty area, which almost guarantees a stifling game.

  1. peter grill
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 9:55 a.m.
    Kent, although I agree with you in your analysis about low or no scoring games, I think changing the net size would be seen as lowering the bar so to speak to international observers further tarnishing the image of U.S. soccer abroad. I also agree with Jim that not giving points to a draw might add some zest to 0-0 matches. I've argued against seeing the score as an indication of "good" soccer, but the excitement of teams pulling out the stops to gain a point in close games generally results in active,intelligent football. Football played with a tactical purpose lends itself to players extending themselves creatively and physically IMHO

  1. Millwall America
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 10:28 a.m.
    A few decades ago, in leagues all over the world, a win earned you 2 points and a draw earned you 1 point. That was changed to encourage attacking soccer so that now a win earned 3 points. But let me see if I understand -- even that is not enough for the current generation? The argument now is that certain draws should be worth 0 points? Please. The rules already do more than enough to encourage a proper amount of attacking. People who don't feel there is enough scoring in soccer would probably be happier watching basketball. Leave soccer for the rest of us who actually enjoy the game and don't need to see a ball in the net every 10 minutes to have a good time.

  1. Caroline Lambert
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 10:53 a.m.
    The article started out with a comparison of goals scored in La Liga and goals scored in MLS. It neglected to mention that 5 goals were scored by Barcelona in a 5-1 rout, and 5 by Real Madrid in a 5-0 victory. Is that what Gardner wants? A league dominated by two teams with all the talent and all the money? I'd rather have MLS the way it is than see these lop-sided games with "lots" of goals.

  1. C Remund
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 11:01 a.m.
    Everyone (including you, Paul)take a step back and realize that many of us live in a country where hype is king. Marketing makes all the difference in the world in terms of revenue and fan retention to leagues with inferior on field product. The NFL (where there is only 12-14 minutes of actual game play) rules the American sports landscape not by consistently producing on field entertainment but by producing such a marketing tsunami and soap opera-worthy drama that one can hardly keep from being caught up in it. I would argue that MLB, NBA and NASCAR have all followed suit to a certain degree. Perhaps the lone standout is the NHL which shares much of the same criticism as soccer in this country ("I don't understand it", "It's low scoring", etc.). In fact, ironically, what the NHL does get kudos for are precisely the things the NHL is struggling with putting behind it (fighting, goons, etc.). Additionally, with regard to the NHL - look at recent attempts to increase scoring in that league... essentially the equivalents to what some are advocating here. I'm not sure a higher average goal total has drawn more people to watching hockey... maybe, but I'd like to see the raw numbers before buying it. I am satisfied with the small advances the MLS is making. Larger attendance, homegrown signings, increasing skill-level, true fans and supporters as opposed to novelty ticket-buyers, growing regional rivalries - these are all good things and coupled with financial stability I see room for continued growth and eventual world recognition - which at the end of the day is what many are really worried about. So, for me, the answer is a balanced approach - yes, market but don't make it a circus and yes, work on increasing the skill level but don't blow money on big name signings that bring little long-term benefit to the league. If anything start throwing some more money at the homegrowns... Americans love local kid makes good stories - that's some marketing you can bank on.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 12:50 p.m.
    Gaber can market all he wants, however, he needs to address the vital roadblocks that are self-inflicted. Let's face it, the quality of the game stinks; turnovers and more turnovers, long hopeful balls, inability to keep possession with or WITHOUT pressure. Add to this misery, the TV commentary wich at best is delusional and at the worst smothers the game th small talk a la baseball; referees that belong in the NHL, and the TV video-production which bounces back and forth with useless ground level feed or having to watch a players back for whatever reason...the whole MLS production on the pitch needs an analysis and reinvention with the final solutions being simplicity and a higher level of entertainment across the board.

  1. Al Gebra
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 12:55 p.m.
    There are two changes in the game I have always thought would improve goal scoring and play in general, not just in MLS but in the entire soccer world. The first doesn't really affect the nature of the game. Make the penalty box much smaller. Its current dimensions are ridiculous when you compare the area of the box to the entire area of the playing pitch (oops...I mean field!). The second change would certainly be revolutionary. Make headers in the box illegal by both the defense or the attacking team. The consequence of committing this foul in the box would be identical to committing a handball in the box.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 1:01 p.m.
    Changing the goal size?...even if it would be enlarged, there are very few players in the MLS who would benefit from it. Attacking efficient MLS players are a rare breed. Low scoring MLS games are the product of poor service and poor finishing; so if a team can't field an efficient 11, breakdowns will occur when the attacking "moment is right". IMHO,except for L.A. 2013, put Messi and CR7 et al on any other MLS team and they would look mediocre because of NO EFICIENT SUPPORT.

  1. Barry Thomas
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 2:42 p.m.
    Uh, Caroline, if you take away the 11 goals scored in the two games you describe as routs, that still leaves 17 goals in the other three games, for an average of almost 5.7 per game. Were those games one-sided travesties also?

  1. Chris Sapien
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 3:32 p.m.
    This is for argument sake only.....not because I agree with the premise....but, the soccer pitch consists of both straight lines and arcs/(circles), why not repeat the two in the design of the goals? Instead of the crossbar a straight line across the top at 8', why not repeat the arc element and have it sweep to 10' in the middle? You have to admit having professional keepers many 6'4" and taller covering a goal only 8' tall doesn't challenge them to cover many shots over their heads unless they are placed perfectly in the upper 90s. And, some of those blasts we see attackers take that sail harmlessly over 8', could very well become goals. By my visual calculations, that only increases the overall goal area by some 15 to 17%. You could conceivable even go to 12' in the middle of the arc and only increase the goal area by 30%. Then you would seriously increase goal scoring without major changes to the fundamentals of the game, and players would be rewarded for alot of those blasts we all love to see. (again this was for argument sake...)

  1. Bruce Moorhead
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 5:38 p.m.
    Many good points here.... C Remond, as a hockey fan, I can tell you the NHL is kidding itself. They maintain increases in scoring - reality is 8 goals/game in the 80's and now 5GPG in the NHL. Millwall, yes 3pts per game was to encourage attacking play. Reality is not much decrease in draws or increase in goals the past 20 years. Kent James, there is reason to suggest making goals bigger (humans taller than 100 years ago, keepers better trained) but I fear that would be viewed a gimmick. My idea echoes Jim Williams: no points for a 0-0 draw. Also: bonus point if scoring 4 or more per game, win,lose or draw. Who would argue with 1pt in standings for a 5-4 loss, 2pts each for a 4-4 draw, 4pts for a 4-2 win? These changes would not affect the game itself, but affect the coaches' thinking before the game begins. I would like to see MLS begin this experiment for FIFA.

  1. Bruce Moorhead
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 5:41 p.m.
    Lance Cummins, curious you mention good defense in Netherlands, because their 1st division is always about the highest scoring in Europe. The Dutch are known for wide open play.

  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 6:14 p.m.
    Amazing how the bloggers come out of the woodwork about incorporating changes in order to promote high scoring games...thow about unlimited subs in order to get more scoring? The bottom line is that such opinions come from people who can't handle reality or should dedicate their sportsphobia to basketball...I have watched high school soccer and some of the teams far surpassed the "efficacy" of MLS teams and they could score goals because they had playmakers, possessed the ball, and had an above average soccer IQ. Face it people, lack of talent and soccer IQ is the root cause for fantasyland experimentation. Time to accept the shortcomings of MLS and be able to handle the truth. A handful of solid players on a team will cannot make it better while the rest of the squad is a drag on the team, i.e., NYRB, is a prime example of that in their games so far this season.

  1. Ronnie j Salvador
    commented on: April 8, 2013 at 7:02 p.m.
    Any deviation from FIFA rules [e.g. changes to penalty box, goal sizes, no headers in the box, etc], will only serve as a short sighted gimmick. Besides, wouldn't MLS have to get FIFA approval from any major deviation of the rules? Are some of you old enough the NASL gimmicks of shootouts at the end of each tie [where the 'shot' began from the halfway line and was a 1v1 on the keeper]? We now look back at those gimmicks as rather silly. I do like the suggestion of zero points for a tie. In youth soccer, most people follow gotsoccer to see where their team is ranked [these are the non~development academy teams]. gotsoccer awards 0 points for a tie, not matter the opponent. If a team wants to move up the ranks, they need to win.

  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 12:12 a.m.
    More goals scored does not ensure entertaining soccer. I find it amusing and pathetic that while every fan loves to watch possession team like Swansea, Bayern, Arsenal and Barca, so few coaches bother to mimic them. Could it be that all of these coaches are too stupid or too timid? Or both?

  1. Douglas Chaves
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 12:45 a.m.
    The referees have to call the outright pushes and running over of players with the ball.Lately theres been to many plays where,the defender lines up the other player and takes the body first then goes for the ball.It's like hockey.Or the so called shoulder to shoulder,often the defender comes from behind,then just shoulder shoves the other guy off the ball,then goes for the ball.It favors the bigger player ,and there's no call.Offensive players aren't able to hold the ball.This shoulder to shoulder allowance,is just a mask for the lesser skilled players and leagues.Leagues which let this go on hurt their national teams,as their national teams invariably ,can't cut it.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 8:22 a.m.
    My suggestion for increasing the goal size is not an attempt to create a high-scoring basketball type game; it's a recognition that we've tried everything else (and I do advocate continuing to get coaches to attack, referees to call fouls, etc.). Goals almost always make a game better, if only because they shake things up. Some people seem to think that more goals somehow cheapens the sport; it's as if they prefer that many people not "get" soccer because those amateurs can't appreciate the subtleties beyond a goal. But when you've got games like the Spain-Netherlands WC final, where the field is filled with talented players, yet the game is boring (though still tension filled) because the weaker team it able to pack it in and just try to keep anything from happening, that's not good. I'd like to see what would happen if the goals were made slightly bigger. I would hope that it would make shots from distance a bit more likely to score, so that when teams pack it in, the more talented team could shoot from distance and score, which would force the defending team to challenge farther up the field (or God forbid, even try to attack), opening up space in the back. Bigger goals will never make the players in the MLS play like those in La Liga, but it would open up the game just a tad, a tweak I'd like to see tried. The downside might be that there would be more lopsided games (5-0), but I'd take that over a lopsided game (possession-wise) that ends in a 0-0 draw.

  1. Bill Anderson
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 8:36 a.m.
    The sky is NOT falling. Our league is far better than it was in 1993. I remember...

  1. Bill Anderson
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 8:37 a.m.
    If the scoring isn't enough for your tastes, just multiply every goal by 7, it will make you feel better (sarcasm).

  1. Ramon Creager
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 10:30 a.m.
    Changing goal sizes, changing rules, no, no, no, a thousand times no. This is just a non-starter. We need to change the incentive structure. Jim Williams above had an excellent idea (no points for 0-0). I can think of another thing we could do to provide incentive to score. We currently have a league structure that encourages "grinding out results." That is, all you have to do is finish in the top 5 in your conference, and you're in. Then, it's Don't-Lose-Baby. This encourages the Houston Dynamo style of boring but playoff winning soccer. Scrap all that, and make the system one table (yes I know all the objections to this). Now, the European leagues have fine incentives to keep playing on if you're not going to finish first: UCL, Europa League, relegation. MLS doesn't have that, so something creative needs to be thought up to take its place. Perhaps we can keep the playoffs, but give the seedings some real bite: Top of table automatically in MLS cup final, 2d & 3d automatically make semis, etc. Now you have a real incentive to pour it on during the regular season. Whatever we do, the current structure must go if we want goals.

  1. Ramon Creager
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 10:38 a.m.
    Caroline, you've got it backwards: RM beat Levante 5-1, and Barca beat Mallorca 5-0. But only the Barca game was a snoozer. The Real Madrid v. Levante game was alive until 6 minutes from the end. Levante had led, and now were trailing 2-1, and were seeking an equalizer, so they pushed up-field those last 6 minutes. Leaving yourself vulnerable at the back against RM is very dangerous, but 2-1 is just as much a loss as 5-1, and Levante have been aggressive about getting points. They paid by shipping 3 goals in those 6 minutes, which was a pity. The rest of the game was pulsating, far better than any MLS game I've watched in a while. That said, LFP has to do something about the financial structure of their league. That is one area that MLS is doing well: preventing a huge wealth gap between the haves and have-nots.

  1. R2 Dad
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 11:42 a.m.
    Douglas, a well-timed shoulder barge is a useful skill at any level. The referee must know when a shoulder barge turns into jumping into a tackle, and maybe they don't always delineate. With the very physical play allowed in the MLS it becomes more difficult drawing a line because the use of hands and arms (tool vs weapon) turns lots of these challenges into wrestling matches, especially in the box on corners. I would never choose to referee MLS matches if I was a grade 4/3...

  1. C. Zee
    commented on: April 9, 2013 at 5:16 p.m.
    The misdirection of MLS (see US Soccer) is that the fabric of football is not woven in American culture. The 100th Anniversary in New York this week included building lighting, bell ringing and speeches. It was limited to the marketing capitol of the nation and not celebrated by everyone. Instead of launching 3 new shirt kits per club, how about improving the coverage and publicity of the Open Cup ?

  1. feliks fuksman
    commented on: April 11, 2013 at 7:27 a.m.
    Play to win instead not to loose is what has to be encouraged to have a more entertaining game; and that has to be recognized and supported by league, and the owners; people who hire coaches, players who play to win and are encouraged to play to win. We need to invest in players who CAN play soccer, local preferably and from abroad (young players and not the ones other places want to get rid off). Playing offensive soccer does not mean you don't play defense; you just have to make more effort to go up as a team; and yes, you must have players who are not afraid to dribble in the right places, to take shots, and players who can create the chances for teammates to finish.

  1. James Froehlich
    commented on: April 11, 2013 at 10:28 a.m.
    IwN -- totally agree --- especially with the bit of impatience with those cocerned by the low scoring. I could watch Barca all day even if they never scored !!!!!! Bill A--- Great! Plus 3 points for those shots directly above the goal.


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