MLS Games Must Entertain

By Paul Gardner

Twenty years ago, a few months before the 1990 World Cup, I asked the same question of two national team coaches: Did they feel under any obligation to play attractive soccer?

England’s Bobby Robson said Yes – “We’re in the entertainment business ... we owe the fans something.” Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez delivered a curt No, saying his team owed the fans only one thing: “To win.”

However carefully you pose the question, the answers always seem to end up with an either/or reasoning: either you play attractive soccer, or you play winning soccer. As though it has to be either one or the other.

Obviously this is an utterly false notion -- there have been plenty of examples to contradict it. In fact, the contradiction is virtually a definition of a great team -- from the “Magic Magyar” Hungarians of the early 1950s, to Real Madrid 1956-60, to Brazil 1970 and so on to present-day Barcelona and Spain -- all of which played winning and entertaining soccer.

The problem being, not that it can’t be done, but that it is not easy to do. For mediocre, even merely good, as distinct from exceptional teams, the easier path is to concentrate on the winning, and leave the entertainment part to take care of itself. If it fails to materialize, well, that’s too bad.

Of the answers given above, I much prefer Robson’s -- but it is that of Tabarez, the bleak insistence that winning is the only form of entertainment that matters, that has gripped the sport.

Any lingering doubt about that state of affairs might well have been put to rest last week by a press report on the formation that Scottish coach Craig Levein used in the Euro 2012 qualifier against the Czech Republic: the report, using the standard three-number system for soccer formations, gave it as 4-6-0. So the zero-forward formation has arrived. The only good news is that Scotland lost the game.

I have been pondering the entertainment factor in the MLS context. Playoff time is arriving, and that does not bode well for attractive soccer. Sadly, we may not notice much of a difference in MLS play, for the top teams seem already to be gearing up (or down, really) for the grim reality of playoff soccer.

The L.A. Galaxy, for instance, had two games last week. It won both of them with much difficulty, and with little in the way of entertainment. The 2-1 win over Chivas USA, and the 1-0 road win over Philadelphia will both, no doubt, receive their share of praise as proof that the Galaxy now knows how to “grind out” wins against stubborn opponents.

I guess they do. On this form they may well grind their way to MLS Cup. Which would be a shame. Just two seasons ago, the Galaxy pulled off a pretty remarkable feat. This was the Ruud Gullit/Bruce Arena season, and although the team finished equal bottom in the standings it somehow managed to score more goals than anyone -- 55 in 30 games, nearly two per game.

I doubt whether that topsy-turvy stat has ever been achieved before in pro soccer anywhere. (In that same year, Manchester United won the English Premier League with 80 goals, bottom club Derby County had 20; in Spain, Real Madrid was champion with 84, while last-place Levante scored only 33).

The problem for the Galaxy was that it had conceded 62 goals, also a league high, more than enough to give it a losing record and to rule out a playoff spot.

The remedy, of course, was not to score even more goals, but to tighten up the defense. A remedy that is bound to mean scoring fewer goals. So it proved. In 2009, the Galaxy scored at the rate of only 1.2 goals per game -- but it got all the way to MLS Cup.

So far this season, the Galaxy has 41 goals; its goals-per-game average has gone up to 1.46 and it now lets in less than one. And it sits at the top of the Western Division.

That’s quite a turnaround that Arena has achieved. The downside is that it has been done at the expense of the game on the field. Galaxy-2008 games was always worth watching, was always full of action, skill and excitement (well, all those goals, for a start). They were, decidedly entertaining .

By 2009 they had become a pragmatic bore. The team that performed a pro bono publico service by beating the Galaxy in the 2009 MLS Cup, Real Salt Lake, was quite different -- lively, inventive, exciting -- and demonstrably the better team (even after a nasty crude foul from David Beckham had knocked its key player, Javier Morales, out of the game after only 20 minutes).

Last week’s Galaxy games were not encouraging. What on earth has happened to Bruce Arena that he can generate such drab soccer? This is not the way his UVa or his D.C. United -- or even his national team at its best -- played. In August the Galaxy came to play the Red Bulls (with all three of their DPs on the field). In a game of numbing mediocrity the Galaxy ground out a 1-0 win.

On Saturday Real Salt Lake was in Red Bull Arena. Same scenario as the Galaxy game, two top teams, plenty of firepower in the field. This time it finished 0-0.

Now the Red Bulls are grinding out ties -- and wins. After a recent 1-0 win over Kansas City, Bulls coach Hans Backe said, “This is not the type of soccer I want to see,” and admitted that he had “no answer” to why it was so sterile. Which is exactly the same response that Real Salt Lake’s coach Jason Kreis gave when asked about Saturday’s barren game against the Red Bulls.

After the Galaxy’s 1-0 yawner over Philadelphia, Arena admitted “We didn't play particularly well ... We won the game. Am I elated? Am I jumping up and down and doing cartwheels over the fact that we were fabulous tonight? No, I'm not.”

Three of the MLS’s best teams, three of the best coaches, all of them evidently satisfied with the scorelines, but all of them puzzled by their inability to conjure up goals.

I’ve mentioned five recent MLS games above, all featuring at least one top team. Those five games gave us just six goals, and very little by way of absorbing interest. This is a worryingly threadbare buildup to the climactic playoffs and MLS Cup.

Do MLS coaches “owe the fans” anything in terms of entertainment? I think they do. Not just to their own fans (winning may be enough for them) but to the larger, much larger group of soccer fans and potential fans. And to the TV viewers. And to MLS.

This is not just wishy-washy naivete. There is a solid business reasoning here. The strength of MLS, its ability to grow, to draw more fans, depends on the attractiveness of its product, the excitement it generates. And how that excitement measures up against the excitement of baseball and football and basketball.

Six goals in five bland games. Is that good enough?

8 comments about "MLS Games Must Entertain".
  1. Doug Kieffer, October 11, 2010 at 9:29 a.m.

    MLS should be looking at the NBA. Shake and bake sells tickets. We are nowhere near the point where a community shows up for games because that's just what you do. Soon, more than half the teams will miss the playoffs. If winning is the only way to sell tickets, the league is in trouble. The fancy stuff HAS to be encouraged and praised.

  2. Carl Walther, October 11, 2010 at 10:54 a.m.

    I really don't think that a lot of MLS coaches or execs. really have the intelligence to understand that you can win AND entertain by playing beautiful soccer.

  3. Margaret Manning, October 11, 2010 at 12:50 p.m.

    The NBA? God help us. I'd rather read a book. We were long-time Galaxy fans, though thick and thin, without a problem--it's called soccer. We were disaffected by the "Beckham era" and happened to move to Seattle just in time for the Sounders, and again, we hung in during the rough patch and are having one hell of a time now. It's called soccer. I don't think you can "make" beautiful soccer happen. (Witness Marathon a few weeks ago, all sorts of failed flashy passes, no scoring.)

  4. Alfonso Gomez, October 11, 2010 at 1:15 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more with Gardner. As a fan of soccer I watch EPL, La Liga, Mexican League and MLS. The MLS is missing creativitiy. American players are not taught creative play. I coach two youth teams for ayso and I try my best to let them be creative and try new moves and plays. The problem is that the kids don't watch professional soccer as much as NBA and NFL. They don't get a chance to see professional players do these moves and then try to copy them. During the world cup my kids and their friends saw the Nike "write your future" commercial and there they went straight to the back yard trying all the moves they saw... Nonetheless, the three games mentioned by Garder hit the nail on the head, MLS needs for enteratinment value with more gols!

  5. Brian Herbert, October 11, 2010 at 1:35 p.m.

    I watched Man U-Sunderland's nil-nil yawner last weekend, I was dumbfounded at how United was so lacking in generation of scoring opportunities. Its the pace of play and opening up of the field that makes exciting soccer, and then goals are the byproduct of that due to the mismatches that the pace creates. In the NHL, NBA, and NFL they have from time to time tweaked the rules to create a more entertaining product (and Baseball did it by looking the other way on steroid abuse!), harder to change MLS rules with FIFA not being under our control.

  6. Chaz Worthy, October 11, 2010 at 5:05 p.m.

    I had planned to go see RBNY v Salt Lake, yet when I heard it was a nil-nil draw, I was glad I didn’t go and expose my non-soccer-fan friends to a scoreless draw…Indeed, the MLS needs more goals!

    This issue reminds me of Bear Bryant’s Alabama teams in the 70s…When I was I a kid I hated watching the Tide’s (and Oklahoma’s) WISHBONE offence. In my eyes, it wasn’t “attractive” football. But they won and no one complained (but me). I’ve heard that’s why more college coaches don’t implement a pass-less option offense, it isn’t “sexy” ie. "attractive".

    …but in soccer, it seems to be more of a defensive mentality than an obvious strategic tact like in our football…

  7. Kyle Stone, October 11, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.

    alsfonso-american players are not taught creative play? That's laughable. Don't lay the blame for this boring style of soccer at the feet of american players. Most of the players on the mls fields each weekend are not even american born or trained. An earlier article discussed the lack of american players in the skill positions in the mls. Looking over the field for a recent game: Columbian, Columbian, honduran,brazil,nigerian,argentia, hardly Iowan or Californian. Do the players there lack creativity? The DP studs are all foreign. Blame the lack of creative play on the coaching and insistance on the refs to let rough,physical play dominate the games over skill.

  8. Loren C. Klein, October 11, 2010 at 5:52 p.m.

    You should have taken your friend to RBNY-RSL, as it was a highly entertaining match despite ending 0-0.

    As for the article itself, let me paraphrase the title by demanding that Paul Gardner columns must contain original intelligent thought and accurate information. The 4-6-0 has been around for a while, as Spalletti at AS Roma used it for a couple of years there.

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