By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 21, 2011) US Soccer Players -- Credit Sigi Schmid once again for resisting the urge to talk like a coach. He was in charge of a squad that lost 7-0 before a massive crowd, and he resisted any urge to go into teachable moment mode. Instead, he called it like he saw it. Embarrassing, and a regrettable choice to try to use every available player.
What that becomes is a teachable moment for the rest of Major League Soccer. If Seattle can get unzipped in a friendly setting, so can you. While it’s nice to think the handful of teams that have shown well against Premier League opposition are flying the flag for the quality of Major League Soccer, they’re also not the ones playing the truly elite.
Stay with me for a second, because that’s not downplaying San Jose needing the goalkeeper to score to beat West Brom, Philadelphia beating Everton without Tim Howard, or Sporting KC and Newcastle ending scoreless. In fact, those are the results that should be played up.
MLS teams shouldn’t expect to match well against any Premier League club. At the same time, they should be able to impose enough of their regular game to do what MLS teams do. Disrupt, run through the heat of an American summer, and defend physically from the opening whistle through stoppage time. In broad terms, they should be reminding some of these second and third tier Premier League clubs what it’s like to play a Championship club.
That’s what MLS does well, and it’s where they’ll find the most flattering comparisons. It’s nice for any team to hear their higher profile opponent have to lean on excuses like “it’s early in our pre-season.” Not so much if that other team is explaining why they piled on the goals in the final ‘45.
Philadelphia deserved their lap of honor last night at PPL Park. They played a tight game, got a late goal from an unlikely source, and gave their fans something to talk about. Is it a season changer? No. Is it confirmation that this is a team that deserves their slot at the top of the Eastern Conference? Of course not. Was it a fun night out? It certainly seems that way.
Meanwhile, the higher profile friendlies like the one the Union is set to play against Real Madrid on Saturday confuse the story line.
At full strength and with the first choice starters playing past the hour mark, no team in Major League Soccer should be competitive with Manchester United and Real Madrid. For whatever reason, that sentence needs to be repeated for too many who should know better. That’s no knock against MLS, but it does beg the question why the League risks exposing their clubs.
We know at least part of the answer. MLS is exposing their clubs in front of packed stadiums. As long as there’s a market for a European giant vs an MLS team, these games will be scheduled. Remember, there are only two Euro vs Euro games on the World Football Challenge schedule, and one is a rematch of the Champions League final. The rest of the time, it’s the European team playing either an MLS or Mexican Primera club.
So where does this leave the MLS teams taking the field against the brightest lights of Europe?
Here’s what is really in play. The expectation is Manchester United and Real Madrid working through tactics and player combinations in game situations to give these friendlies value in their pre-season preparations. That should leave opportunities for the MLS opposition to try their luck on the counter. Maybe Manchester United or Real Madrid stall in their attack, and a final score compliments the home team.
Considering the talent gap, that’s the flattering result for a friendly against a high profile European giant. Instead, last night in Seattle it was Manchester United showing what they can do on the counter against Seattle’s bench. Other than having fun, there’s not much value in that for United. They see one or two of those games in Premier League play a season, and it’s normally not repeatable, much less predictable.
Not even the biggest MLS booster should be envisioning some cold and damp afternoon somewhere in England a few months from now, when Alex Ferguson calls on his side to remember that match in Seattle and turn things around in the second-half. That lopsided result ends up as worthless for them as it is for Seattle trying to use it as a lesson for MLS play.
Unless the Sounders expect to be playing teams like Manchester United for the rest of the season along with unlimited substitutions, the only point to take from last night is that great players can score goals. That’s worth practically nothing for both sides.
It’s tempting to turn these games into gauntlets that show us what the reality is for MLS and its teams. Overexpansion has led to too many squads made up of unremarkable players. Single-entity has hampered teams from spending on anything other than the elite by MLS standards. This remains a League focused on managing expectations by playing down every unflattering result while playing up any success,
Any and all of that has its place in the discussion. Then again, we’re talking about a third-year expansion team that switched out its midfield at halftime getting thrashed by a Champions League finalist. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.