By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (July 18, 2012) US Soccer Players – It's somewhat fitting that it's Seattle opening the 2012 World Football Challenge. Last season, it was Seattle giving Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber the opening for one of the most repeated quotes in recent League history. Seattle didn't come to play in a friendly against Manchester United, and Garber wasn't having it."You don't like to lose 7-0 in a schoolyard soccer match. Our view is that if we're going to play these games, we ought to play to win. 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. I think Seattle regrets playing their second team, reserves, even trialists against Manchester United. I don't think we'd ever do anything like that again."
MLS clubs did things similar to that at the earliest opportunity. One of the stories of the 2011 touring schedule was MLS clubs blaming the schedule for fielding unrepresentative elevens. Though no team would lose as badly as Seattle, the first team mentality didn't take hold. Even the All-Star Game ended up an embarrassment for MLS at the hands of Manchester United.
A year later, it's Chelsea getting the Seattle and All-Star dates with the defending European champions just as adept at causing problems. For MLS, it's a different issue than simply getting respectable showings against their European visitors.
Garber's comments were motivated by a specific scenario, the lopsided score that gets reported enough that context doesn't matter. Even when the appropriate context is provided, it doesn't speak well of the MLS brand of soccer. Using a sellout game at a National Football League stadium to test depth is borderline insulting to the crowd and the opposition. That's simply not the role of the high-profile friendly, regardless of the score line.
Leading into opening night for the summer friendly season, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid is saying the right things. "We want to do well," he told MLSsoccer. Last year was a strange one for us." In other words, given a cleaner schedule Seattle intends to take advantage of an opportunity.
What message Seattle sends later tonight will be another clear indication of how MLS clubs treat friendlies, but they were hardly the only offender in 2011. Though they won the prize for the most overtly embarrassing, other teams took liberties that shouldn't have happened.
MLS fell into multiple traps with last season's friendly schedule. Fixture congestion and comparing their roster choices with what the giants of Europe were doing as part of preseason preparations set MLS up for failure.
There's the reasonable expectation that a team will go to their bench, but an MLS bench and an elite European club's bench are very different things. Head-to-head against the squads of the kind of clubs that get invited to the World Football Challenge, MLS needs to play to every advantage.
What's not reasonable is a club congratulating itself when an academy player manages to score against an elite opponent. The only thing that really says about the club in question is that they didn't respect the event. That was the main point Garber attempted to make, that scheduling these games in the first place should mean they will be treated respectfully. It's not the place for "playing their second team, reserves, even trialists...."
It's not, and it shouldn't even be an option. Last year's choices by some MLS clubs led to discussions of the importance of the MLS regular season. Since then, MLS has made regular season results less important than they were in 2011. The playoffs are dependent on Conference finish, there are more spots, and there's an expansion team that isn't expected to snag one of them. That means a dominant Conference won't be rewarded by wildcard playoff positions. Add in the League's issues putting together a schedule, and excuses that weren't good enough last year are nonexistent this season.
Should Seattle open by giving Chelsea a game tonight on national cable television (9:30pm ET - ESPN2), they would join the MLS clubs that have a reputation for playing up their chances in friendly settings. It shouldn't be lost on anybody that we're normally talking about the elite MLS teams. The LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and New York have all taken advantage of friendlies on the calendar to send that broader message. MLS teams can compete. European teams shouldn't take them lightly. It might not always end up with a win or even a close game, but it's the effort that counts.
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