Exhibitions against European teams a learning experience for MLS
Looking at the scorelines, MLS' friendly matches against visiting European squads this summer couldn't have gone much worse. MLS sides went 2-12-1 (W-L-T) and were outscored 39-12, including Manchester United's 7-0 and 4-0 drubbings of Seattle Sounders and the MLS All-Stars, respectively.
Concerns once again arose about the format. Were MLS teams being embarrassed? Was it even sensible for these teams to be risking fitness and injury during the middle of the season?
Surrounded by reporters at halftime during the MLS All-Star Game, MLS commissioner Don Garber found himself defending the notion of MLS sides playing high-profile friendlies midseason.
"We certainly hope that we can stand tall and compete, but we don't pretend that our players are yet in most cases in the caliber of Manchester United," Garber said, seeming to have already conceded defeat with the All-Stars trailing 2-0. "We're not trying to position ourselves that way. ... Up until the last second [of the first half] it was 1-0 and a great match."
Despite recent lopsided scores, coaches from both sides of the pond unanimously praise the friendlies, saying that the level of play has greatly increased in the past decade. So too has the money that the visitors stand to make as the country's soccer awareness has risen. Add in the fact that the U.S. offers training facilities unparalleled in their quality and ubiquity, and the decision for European clubs to tour America in the summer could in the future become a staple of the sport.
In mid-July, six of the 20 the teams in the English Premier League were on American territory -- an all-time high. And it was no coincidence. While teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea have become common sights at MLS stadiums over the past decade, lesser-known teams have started to venture their way across the Atlantic as well.
West Bromwich Albion, which finished 11th in the Premier League this past season, was in America for two weeks, falling 2-1 to the San Jose Earthquakes before defeating the Portland Timbers 3-2 in two matches that averaged more than 12,000 people in attendance. The numbers were slightly below the team's average attendance figures this year, but impressive for an exhibition match in front of a crowd that would be hard-pressed to define "Albion."
For West Brom assistant head coach Michael Appleton, it was a welcome change from the trips the club had made in previous years to other European countries, including a journey to the Netherlands last summer.
"The [Dutch] facilities weren't very good," Appleton said. "The surfaces and playing fields were poor. There were divots all over the place, which was dangerous for players. It was hot, so you would have liked to have the pitch watered before you train, but it wasn't. There was a lack of availability of equipment. The really basic stuff you'd expect to have available just weren't there."
This summer West Brom was able to find refuge in Ojai, Calif., and train at Oxnard College. Oxnard is hardly an athletic powerhouse famed for its facilities, but the positive reception the school received from West Brom illustrates the high quality of offerings that American universities have available.
"I think first and foremost a lot of clubs come over because the facilities are fantastic," he said. "Facility wise, absolutely everything was available for the players. Ice baths, yoga, Pilates, it was all there. Back in the UK, if you wanted a training field and gym and recovery pool all in the same place, it would be hard to find that."
Should these tours continue to grow, of course, it must also be done with the consent of MLS and its teams' coaches. Both Kansas City's Peter Vermes and New England's Steve Nicol have been around the MLS for more than a decade and applaud the way they have seen these friendlies evolve.
As an MLS player from 1996-2002, Vermes remembers playing friendlies against Italy's Fiorentina and Roma, as well as Swiss teams.
"They don't compare to the caliber of teams that are now coming through on a regular basis," he said. "These high-quality teams allow us to continue to keep a high level of competition when we're in the middle of our season."
Having big clubs coming to the United States is not a new thing: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and A.C. Milan all drew huge crowds during their visits in 2004. Only, they didn't play MLS clubs. Instead, they played in the "ChampionsWorld Series," an 11-game event that featured eight storied European clubs. New England and San Jose had the opportunity to play in international friendlies that summer, but they each played Sporting Lisbon, a respected team, but not a heavyweight. Not even the All-Stars played a foreign club -- it turned out to be the final year of MLS' East vs. West format.
Since then, though, the trend has shifted away from these Eurocentric clashes. This year's World Football Challenge was similar to the ChampionsWorld Series in format, but different in that MLS teams participated in it. In fact, this year 65 percent of the 23 international ties involved an MLS squad.
The system, however, is far from perfect, with some games occurring midweek, in between two MLS weekend fixtures, thereby not allowing a coach to play his first-team players without worrying about getting them tired. Manchester United's only loss to have ever come against an MLS side came during a 2010 weekend game against Sporting Kansas City, the timing of which allowed Vermes to field his first-team players and pressure United, who fell 2-1.
"Our view is that if we're going to play these games, we ought to play to win," Garber said in reference to Seattle's 7-0 loss to Manchester United. "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."
Nicol, whose Revolution lost 4-1 to Manchester United in July, disagrees and said that the scores do not matter.
"The league is our bread and butter," said Nicol, "I would love to keep the first team on and go for a win against Manchester United but from the coaches' perspective, we don't get paid to win friendlies. It gives the reserve guys a chance to see United's quality firsthand. ... The supporters who come to see all [United's] big players, they don't pay attention to the scores. They all forget about the score. They all saw a great game played by the great players."
Nicol rather views these shorelines as a sign that the European clubs are actually competing in the games rather than just "kicking the ball around," which he thought occurred a decade ago. For Nicol, a longtime star at Liverpool, MLS teams continue to have a ways to go before they could reach Premier League level.
"I think MLS teams are [English] Championship quality," he said. "None of the teams in MLS could live week to week in the Premiership. That isn't being hard on the league. The majority of leagues in the world wouldn't be able to survive in the Premiership."
Appleton agreed with that sentiment, noting MLS teams were handicapped by a low salary cap. So too did Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who said the All-Star team lacked "organization" and a finishing touch.
For the MLS players leaving the All-Star locker room last week, none of them seemed particularly distressed about having been outclassed on the field. They all lamented the team's early missed opportunities, but praised the quality of their opponents and of the event itself.
During his 45 minutes on the pitch with the All-Stars, Los Angeles Galaxy defender Sean Franklin struggled to keep up with midfielder Park Ji-Sung, who scored a goal and went on to become the Man of the Match. So next year did he want to play a team that would give MLS more of a chance to win, a team that wouldn't run circles around you in the second half?
"No," he said. "If I am on the All-Star team next year, I want to play Manchester United. The only way we can grow as soccer players here in America is by playing against the best teams."