By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (May 8, 2012) US Soccer Players -- The summer touring schedule starts tomorrow night in Chester, PA. Schalke 04 officially finished 3rd in the Bundesliga on Saturday and are now in the United States to play the Philadelphia Union. More will follow.
Yesterday, MLS and Creative Artists announced the full World Football Challenge schedule, with two out of the five games involving Major League Soccer clubs. There are already other games on the summer schedule, including the opponent in the MLS All-Star Game, and some that have yet to be announced. If you're interested in seeing a European team in the USA over the next few weeks, you'll probably have a reasonable opportunity.
Once upon a time (also known as the early 2000's) club friendlies had become a rarity. After several seasons of international friendlies, MLS clubs had figured out how hard it was to create demand. That was especially true for midweek games against clubs that might not have the Stateside drawing power they expected. So the clubs made a pragmatic choice and stopped adding friendlies to the schedule. No more visits from mid-table European clubs, at least for a little while.
What revived the summer touring schedule was big clubs showing up to play each other. MLS wasn't able to attract that level of opponent in the early days, but they were able to add an MLS vs the elite game as part of a European giant's tour. All of a sudden, it was literally MLS vs the elite, with the League turning the All-Star Game into a twist on the summer club friendly.
Marquee European clubs squaring off in a North American city somewhere near you is now expected. It's part of the North American game, an opportunity to see in person what is normally reserved only for television. Well, at least a version of it. The European club coach that can resist the urge to make multiple substitutions each and every game during a summer tour is a rarity. So is the ability to really build up results when an MLS team manages to win against that version of the super club.
With that in mind, questions continue to be asked about the worth of these games to MLS teams. There's a version of the Kansas City revival that starts by beating Manchester United in front of a huge crowd at a stadium where they spent years unable to draw over 10k. Whether or not that's your version of events, that game was valuable for the local MLS club. Then there are the examples on the other side of the scale where the MLS team also tries to see how many unrecognizable names it can use and ends up having to explain a lopsided loss.
To their credit, Major League Soccer publicly questioned why some of their clubs would schedule high-profile friendlies they had no interest in taking seriously. Good for them, since marquee opponents normally carry marquee ticket prices and at least some expectation of getting stretches of quality soccer. No MLS team is at the point when they should be stressing yet another league game in June or July. No coach or front office should think that's explainable. That they do, or at least did, should have been enough of an indication to Major League Soccer that things needed to change.
Some still confuse an MLS problem with a summer friendly problem. Downplaying summer friendlies is almost its own past time in American soccer, but that normally completely misses the point.
Yes, MLS could try taking yet another page from the original North American Soccer League's playbook and try reviving the Trans-Atlantic Cup, but would it really be any different? The realities of the European game aren't likely to shift to playing games that count over the offseason in North America. There's too much to lose back home to even consider that. The response to following the example from the bigger North American sports leagues and playing regular season games overseas was met with anger in England. Right now, games that count are reserved for the home market.
Summer friendlies are about creating an event, from those marquee matchups to the clubs that might not be much of a draw on their own in the US squaring off against an MLS team with an open date. I've seen enough of them over the years to be as jaded as anybody, but honestly I've rarely left these games disappointed. That's as true for the high profile as it is for the friendlies with lower expectations. Along with the marquee names, I've seen teams from all over Europe and England that I wouldn't have otherwise. There's value in that.
Most of us aren't going to have the money or the time to take in a soccer trip of Europe, seeing multiple clubs in multiple leagues. The summer tours make that accessible to American fans in person. That alone is enough justification for putting these games on the schedule.
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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