MLS: Friendlies against foreign teams still don’t work

Major League Soccer is not doing American soccer any favors by having its all-stars play against top foreign teams year after year. The entertainment value is never as high as expected, and it inevitably just leads to more discussion about how far behind the rest of the world Americans are. That is hardly worth the large payday the league likely gets for putting on these spectacles.

From the players’ perspective, it is difficult enough to just play in an all-star game. The majority of players are not used to playing with one another, which is obvious in their understandably disjointed effort against well-oiled and well-acquainted teams.

Nobody on either side of the ball takes these games seriously, either. The goals are to get everybody some playing time and avoid injury. Looking at the recent MLS All-Star Game, three MLS goalkeepers saw playing time, along with 19 field players. Manchester United was performing at less-than-maximal levels also. Sir Alex Ferguson was more concerned with his players’ fitness levels.

“We’ve trained well and, during the games, played some good stuff,” striker Wayne Rooney said to the Manchester United website. “Basically, it’s all about getting the fitness work in to try and prepare for the upcoming season.”

Surely, there are better ways to showcase the talent in MLS. If Commissioner Don Garber really needs to flaunt it with an all-star game, bringing back the traditional East vs. West matchup would allow the game to be what it is meant to be – a show of talent and entertainment. As for the foreign teams, which come to the United States because of the expanding fan base, the revenue tours offer and the training facilities in place, have them play against each other.

Matchups between foreign teams and MLS teams do not really work. The MLS calendar is still incompatible with the rest of the world’s. By the time mid-season friendlies roll around, teams are concerned with the playoff run and not injuring or overworking players. This just pressures coaches to put their reserve teams on the field for at least half of the game, and the Seattle Sounders FC vs. Manchester United game showed what happens in those situations.

Besides United’s 7-0 embarrassment of the Sounders on their own field, the inconvenience of these friendlies has culminated in some other noteworthy, yet ultimately meaningless, results. Last year, Sporting Kansas City defeated United 2-1, but this year, United has been perfect in three matches against MLS opponents, brushing aside the Sounders, All-Stars and Chicago Fire. Manchester City defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1, while Portsmouth tied Charleston 0-0, and Orlando beat Newcastle United 1-0. Red Bull New York lost to PSG before tying Arsenal in the Emirates Cup in London.

These results, some of which do not reflect well on MLS, prompted Garber to lament MLS clubs’ effort in mid-season friendlies.

“Our view is that if we’re going to play these games, we ought to play to win,” the MLS commissioner said. “And if a team can’t fit it into their schedule either because of congestion or their own priorities, then they shouldn’t play in those games.”

Sure, don’t play the friendlies. Give up the additional revenue that sell-out crowds at these games bring. If MLS is serious about competing as a top league in the world, concessions must be made to allow these games to happen. However, MLS could take some steps in its scheduling process to make these friendlies more interesting and entice coaches to go for a win.

The league could leave a bit more room in the month of July to accommodate both friendlies and the start of CONCACAF Champions League play. That would mean stretching the calendar a bit, which has been in discussion for a while.

“At some point, we’re going to be able to push that calendar deeper and deeper into March and perhaps into February,” Garber said. “And when we’re able to do that, I think we’ll be able to free up some of the congestion.”

Unfortunately, not all MLS clubs will be able to accommodate a change that easily. Real Salt Lake, Chicago, Columbus, DC United, New York, New England, Toronto FC and (starting next year) Montreal Impact all will have trouble handling early games at home because of the weather. The only way for them to accommodate it would be to have them go on extended road trips early in the season and perhaps hold preseason training somewhere away from home, which would put a strain on their budgets.

No amount of calendar stretching solves the problem on the other side of the ball, save for a complete compliance with the European calendar, which will never happen. Foreign teams will still be concerned primarily with fitness and preparation for their season.

In other words, will likely never care about MLS friendlies.

Liviu Bird is a goalkeeper for Seattle Pacific University and editor-in-chief of The Falcon, Seattle Pacific’s student newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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