MLS demeans itself with summer 'football' follies

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.

24 comments about "MLS demeans itself with summer 'football' follies".
  1. Rene Guerra, July 23, 2011 at 4:54 a.m.

    In his "MLS demeans itself with summer 'football' follies" article, Gardner has a very important point: the Manchester United 7 - Seattle Sounders 0 massacre only evidences how terribly weak the MLS is.

    Before even attempting to compete against world-class clubs, the MLS should at least learn from them by making its players and coaches watch and analyze videos of great matches, such as, for example, the European Cup final, where Barcelona made Manchester United dance at the tune of 4 - 1.

    The naked truth is that MLS soccer is still ugly, terrible, detestable. Is it the players? Is it the coaches? Or is it both?

    That said, since it is necessary not to keep the MLS isolated in its sheer mediocrity; that is, it has to keep testing itself continually against foreign teams, probably a gradual approach should be followed, inviting South American teams, rather than European ones.

    Playing against Argentine, Brazilian, Uruguayan and Chilean teams would allow MLS teams gauge themselves...without being humiliated so grossly, as in the case of the Sounders being walloped 7-0 by Manchester United.

  2. David Sirias, July 23, 2011 at 8:17 a.m.

    If you want these nonsense games then you need to have a summer break. If you don't want that because it compresses each half such that there are two many wednesay games, then get rid of the football challenge. Cant have it both ways. Little extra coin....... or credibility ( make the season matter; try to win the CCL etc ) I would rather have the latter.

  3. Paul Lorinczi, July 23, 2011 at 9:48 a.m.

    Why is everyone crying about the Man Utd loss at Seattle? First half was a great game. The difference? The finishing. Man Utd finished, Seattle didn't.

    These are benchmark games.Everyone needs to quit whining and learn from it.

    MLS is making a little cash from it. (I wonder if Chivas is whining about losing to Man City)

  4. Walt Pericciuoli, July 23, 2011 at 9:52 a.m.

    It's the money, period. No other credible league in the world would allow these games to be played in the middle of the season. It demeans the league because it proves again that the regular season for the MLS staff is meaningless.

  5. Ken Sweda, July 23, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.

    Garber wants to keep MLS weak, boring (aside from the broken legs), and managed. This tournament was strictly for the money, and US Soccer is complicit. The MLS regular season is a joke not just because of the playoff system but also the lack of promotion and relegation. We have been exposed before when foreign clubs visit, but it actually, somehow, seems to be getting worse.

  6. James Froehlich, July 23, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.

    If US soccer fans need to actually WATCH the thrashing of MLS teams by these top teams to understand that MLS is a very weak league then the perceptiveness of US fans needs to be called into question. For my part, I would much rather watch Barca play another top team than play a weak MLS side. So, why not return to the old format of not including MLS teams? Makes the competitions much more interesting and obviously more entertaining!!

  7. Carl Walther, July 23, 2011 at 11:54 a.m.

    Don 'Goober" don't care about American soccer. It's just a money generating system for them. And they're too arrogant to be ashamed of the spectacle and embarrassment that they caused. All of these people in charge (including the Goober) should be banned from American soccer.

  8. Eric Young, July 23, 2011 at 12:10 p.m.

    When Paul is right, he is right. We need to rethink this WFC stuff. Especially to keep making the MLS stronger. The fact that we dont' follow the European league schedules should be honored better. These WFC games appear to generate revenue--but they come in the middle of our season when the MLS really does not need the attention. Or at least this sort of attention (loosing big to big teams).

  9. cony konstin, July 23, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.

    Several years ago my little team from Houston dismantle man u at the dallas cup in front of several 1000 fans. The fans were telling us to home back to our country. The fans through out the game were calling us dirty mexicans. In the end one of our parents ran on the field after we had won and said I am not a dirty mexican I am from El Salvador and my son was born in the USA. I tell you what I want. I want a Soccer Revolution in the USA. No more smoke n mirrors. We need to create a NEW SPARTA in the USA. So when anyone comes into our house or when we go to their house we know how to do the business like Georgie Best, Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, and the rest of the great ones use to do. We need to create our own geniuses and it is not going to happen with the hobbyish environment that we have created for our present and future players in the USA. I am ready for this REVOLUCION is anyone else or am I the only one who must go at it alone?

  10. Steve Scherrer, July 23, 2011 at 1:05 p.m.

    Couple of points - Paul rhetorically asks the question why we do this (have top teams play MLS teams) and then answers his own question: The fact is, these teams are coming over anyway, and as Paul puts it, there is a risk that the might teams make MLS completely irrelevant when they are over here. AND, he forgot to mention, MLS shares no spoils. So what does MLS do? Get involved, get the big teams to play the MLS teams so MLS can insert itself and keep its teams in the headline, helping maintain their relevancy, and shares in the spoils. These are not to be underestimated, and the alternative is worse. So MLS is kind of stuck between a Scylla and Charybdis here, and chooses the lesser of the two evils. So, in essence, I think MLS is right to be in these games.

    However, I would rather MLS approach these games a little more competitively. What we have found out from these games, unsurprisingly, is that a 300 million dollar player budget creams a 3 million dollar player budget. And we also found out that MANU's bench is light years ahead of MLS benches. The first half of Seattle Manu was quite competitive. But in the second half, Seattle subbed their stars, and Manu put in Rooney. Hence the demolition.

    The point is, Seattle could have remained competitive, but they CHOSE not to.

    And MLS teams cannot simply WILL themselves to have better financials. MLS is generally doing things right - slow and steady growth is needed. Now, we all wish they would accelerate the advancement a bit by increasing the team budgets, but without the money to support the salaries, MLS doesn't exist. I wish more fans understood this.

  11. Omar Chaudhry, July 23, 2011 at 1:06 p.m.

    Great article, @Paul. And @Cony, I'm with you, brother!

  12. beautiful game, July 23, 2011 at 1:09 p.m.

    Forget about MLS v euro-giants...the euro-giants should have their own tournament...they are too powerful for the MLS...face it amici sportivi vicini et lontani, MLS quality does not measure up or is even close to the euro-giants...let's see if man U takes the foot off the pedal in the All-Star contest, i doubt it; prediction 5-1.

  13. Ted Westervelt, July 23, 2011 at 1:26 p.m.

    Paul - This would have been a great side by side: MUFC 1950 tour v MUFC 2011 tour. A group of Philly/NJ All Stars tied the behemoths in '50. Perhaps from there, we can finally acknowledge that MLS is a circus placeholder for real club soccer in the US, despite snazzy WiFi in stadiums.

  14. Chester Grant, July 23, 2011 at 2 p.m.

    The Sounder "thrashing" by Man U actually flattered Man U.....Seattle was terrific in the first half and it was amazing that they were not well ahead at half time. In the second half the Sounders went deep into the roster with less experienced players and they were unlucky; Man U seemed to score on every possession...Sounders had plenty of possession but couldnt convert.

  15. Juan R, July 23, 2011 at 2:14 p.m.

    I agree more with Steve Scherrer than I do with Paul. Personally, this World Football Challenge is a reminder of just where American soccer is right now. It's a warmup for European football and MLS teams should take advantage of it financially, to look at players on their limited bench, and showcase their unknown talent to European scouts. I don't care if ManU wins 7-0, it's a friendly. I care more about how the American players played individually. Did they give their all? Did fans enjoy the atmosphere of a packed stadium? Sure, it would be great if the score was more even, but what does that really prove? We need to develop our league, and sure it might hurt the playing quality of the regular season with these exhibitions, but without promotion relegation the regular season becomes dull during the middle months. But we are nowhere close to having that as part of the soccer landscape. We need to keep building the league step by step as it is doing. The new teams have added tremendously to the league and we should keep expanding slow and steady. I live in Ft. Lauderdale/Miami, and we missed a great opportunity to join that excitement to create a facility with the building of the overpriced Marlins stadium that was a gift of local government, paid by taxpayers. We should have had that stadium at least be dual purpose with soccer if we were going to be raped, so I doubt Miami will be able to add to that excitement any time soon because our facilities here are awful. But the league is doing fine, because if we don't bring ManU and Barca in the summer when our league is in full swing, when do we bring them. And we are not ready to take on the NFL and college football at this moment. Not yet...

  16. Kent James, July 23, 2011 at 3:12 p.m.

    Steve Scherrer nailed this one. The MLS is (rightfully) trying to make the best of a difficult situation. I like the idea of the MLS all-stars playing a big European club for the all-star game; it allows us to see (theoretically) the best MLS players work together, and it makes the all-start game a competitive game (which I think is good; better than a game in which nobody tries very hard, which is the way a lot of all-star games are). The Seattle-Man U game does highlight the problem; I saw the first half (in which Man U, which looked to be in pre-season form, was fortunate to be up 1-0 in a very competitive game), then came back 30 minutes later and it was 6-0. If the MLS is going to play these games, they should play their starters. Putting your MLS bench against Man U? I'd like to be able to put money on who will win that one...

  17. Chris Ogle, July 23, 2011 at 11:40 p.m.

    After watching a very competitive game between Real Madrid and Philadelphia it's clear that there's another aspect of these friendly games and that is when a MLS team like Philly matches one of the top two club teams in the world blow for blow in a game like tonight's,it actually enhances the image of the MLS. It says hey,we might not be a great team if we played in La Liga or the EPL,but we're definitely first division quality,which shows the fans that the MLS isn't the dog sh#t league everyone says it is.Today's Chicago-ManU game was also very competitive and if Chicago would have had better finishing they could of tied or even won.The thing I want to know is when MLS teams play each other,why don't they play in the exciting,attacking way that Chicago and Philly did in today's games because they would definitely draw more fans to the games.Every time I watch an MLS game it's always overly defensive and booring which leaves an impression (like last year's WC)in the minds of new fans that the sport is defensive and booring which isn't true at all.

  18. Eric R., July 24, 2011 at 11:48 a.m.

    I for one prefer to see an exhibition time of year than league games. No one should be playing in this heat! I wish MLS would take a 2-4 week break this time of year and stick to exhibitions and All-Star games.

  19. Karl Ortmertl, July 24, 2011 at 8:47 p.m.

    I think these games are great for US fans. They get to see the best soccer teams in the world live. The league makes money. It's win-win, really. No one who watches the MLS thinks that MLS teams are competitive with the best in the world. Having them on the same field sort of pounds you over the head with the difference in quality, but that's actually a good thing. You appreciate the quality of the best even more. Every league in the world is inferior to these clubs to one degree or another. That doesn't mean that there shouldn't be other leagues. It's like college football or college basketball or minor league baseball. You take it for what it is. I'm unclear on the point of the article. Should the MLS be trying to hide where it stands in the world of soccer? Should it be trying to hoodwink the fans? The knowledgeable fans would be insulted by that tactic.

  20. Gak Foodsource, July 24, 2011 at 10:41 p.m.

    Steve might be correct about MLS being inbetween a rock and a hard place, but I don't think the fanbases are the same. Doing some analysis on TV ratings for MLS games might reveal some imteresting results. I do like his point about the comparative financial situations of the MLS teams and European ones, but please, Steve, don't give Gulati and Garber any additonal excuses. We shouldnt expect to win, nor should we be surprised we lose as badly as we do. The bigger question is when Gulati and Garber will break the binds of single entity and let MLS teams compete. The path towards increased revenue, which is needed to compete with Real Madrid and MUFC, is not at the gate - its through selling players. Of course we have to develop them before we can sell them... otherwise we dont make any money off their movement.

  21. Steven Cohen, July 25, 2011 at 9:58 a.m.

    It is another spot on piece by Paul Gardener who when discussing anything from US MNT to MLS is the only voice in this country who says it how he sees it.

    I have not watched a single pre season game and will not while i have enjoyed the Gold Cup, WWC and to a lesser extent Copa America (based on quality of tournament) based purely on the fact the games meant so much.

    These games are meaningless and they make me realize that i am quite correct to stay well clear of MLS regular season which by these futile exercises every summer reiterate that not even MLS thinks its very important.

    MLS at times does more harm to its own league than any 'euro snob' could do by writing or blogging or broadcasting about it's imperfections and lack of quality...lack of context and meaningful competition. It is by far the most important strike against the league and they still refuse to address the issue, these summer games only highlight the issue more.

  22. Thomas Hosier, July 28, 2011 at 11:05 a.m.

    I believe these summer competitions are good for Soccer in the USA. Major League Soccer gets TV time and when an MLS team does slay a European Giant or plays them pretty much dead even takes American Soccer one step closer to legitimacy. So a team gets blown out after playing the first half exceptionally well ... what was it 1 nil at halftime and then the MLS coach makes major substitutions and the 2nd side gets blown out 6 nil in the second half ... seems more like a coaching issue than an MLS issue. Does MLS have much growing to do? Of course, but hiding in the closet is not a solution.

  23. Brian Something, July 29, 2011 at 11:15 p.m.

    Amen. 1) MLS continues to devalue its own product by hyping these meaningless friendlies far more than their main product (league games), 2) they devalue their own product by bending over backwards to make sure the Euro stars play on grass in places where MLS players are forced to play on garbage turf and 3) it shows a pathetic inferiority complex that American fans wet themselves in glee over these visits like a bunch of hicks going gaga over a visit by the emperor to the provinces. And then they get pissed off at MLS coaches for actually getting their priorities RIGHT by subbing first team players at halftime and saving them for games that actually matter.

  24. Carlos Thys, July 31, 2011 at 1:42 a.m.

    Folks, like it or not, the MLS is still in development. And it is taking risks with new expansion clubs over the past years. The MLS needs to build up its fan base, media base, and TV/internet revenues base. One way to do this is hosting big name clubs. Folks be P-A-T-I-E-N-T. We're still the new guys on the block. However, if we do this right, the MLS will be the best league in all of the Western Hemisphere in 8-10 years time. And then it will be the 7th best league in the world. Isn't that a good enough trajectory? That said, there was no reason to alter turf fields for natural grass. Thank you for pointing that out; Real Salt Lake should have a forfeit win. Last point: Stop listening to any bellyaching from MLS coaches after a MANU or other Euro club whalloping. If I'm a MLS coach and I'm struggling to "message" to my players that they're really not fully developed/fully finished players yet....what better lesson can I offer than a 7-0 or 5-1 loss where we're seriously outplayed for 80+ minutes?

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