The MLS Conundrum
This past weekend saw me stoop to my usual summer levels of desperation for 11 dudes kicking a round object against 11 other dudes. Despite the fact that the Confederations Cup just happened, I spent my Saturday watching the Seattle-Chelsea match along with a half and change of the Inter Milan-Club America tilt. That, along with a fun conversation I’m having with a fellow Yank on the Arseblog forums, has sparked a train of thought in my mind regarding our oft-disparaged domestic league. I can’t say I’m a fan of MLS (not since my Metros went the way of the walking billboard, anyway), so I could well be off-base with some of my assertions. That said, MLS seems to be in quite the quandary when viewed from the outside.
While the quality of play has certainly improved from the nascent stages of the league (you know, back when DC United thought it was a good idea to start Jeff Causey in net), a half-hearted effort from a Chelsea side clearly in pre-season form showed just how wide the chasm is between MLS and their European counterparts. By MLS standards, Seattle are a good side. I saw their season opener against the Red Bulls, and while a team of 11 Helen Kellers could surely ravage the walking billboards, I still came away impressed with their pace and their ability to finish off a weak opponent.
Their opponents on Saturday were of a much higher standard though, and the disparity on display was clear. Even in pre-season form, Chelsea moved up the field with precision passing and intelligent running off the ball. Seattle, on the other hand, misplaced simple passes and unsurprisingly were pinned back in their own end more often than not.
One incident in particular showed this difference in embarrassingly-sharp relief. Chelsea switched fields, but there was too much on it and it was heading out of play. There were three or four green shirts in the vicinity, and they all stopped playing as you do when you know the ball is going out of play. If you watch a better league, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that the winger in blue hustled to the ball and stopped it from crossing the line. You can’t blame the Seattle players for their reaction – in an MLS game, that ball would have bounced out of play 99 times out of 100. I’m not just talking about the median of the league, either. I played in an overnight tournament at Giants Stadium a few weeks back, and thus somewhat involuntarily watched the recent two-time champion Houston squad play the Red Bulls. One would expect a professional dismantling by the superior side, but even that was a festival of misplayed passes, running into cul-de-sacs, poor goalkeeping and horrific finishing. If it weren’t for Pat Onstad pissing off the Empire Supporters Club enough to spark a 75-minute long verbal smackdown on him, there would have been absolutely nothing to maintain my interest (though I did cackle when John Wolyniec scored the equalizer with 10 men in injury time).
Contrast that to the other major friendly of the weekend, which saw Inter Milan take on Club America. That too is an example of a disinterested European power taking on a North American club in the middle of their season. The difference was clear, though. The Mexican side were every inch the equal of their opponents (taking into account that some important players were missing on both sides, and the fitness levels and touch of the Inter players not being what they would be in January), and the final scoreline of 1-1 might have flattered the Nerazzurri a little bit. Spin it however you want, but no one currently in MLS can pick out a pass or take a corner like Pavel Pardo, and no one in MLS could have volleyed off that corner like the guy who scored (didn’t catch the name).
What strikes me though is that in similar situations when it is the MLS All-Star team instead of a separate MLS team, the All-Stars typically fare much better. As a matter of fact, they are undefeated against foreign opponents in 5 attempts: 3-1 over Chivas Gudalajara in 2003, 4-1 over Fulham in 2005 (ironically, Deuce suited up for MLS in this one), 1-0 over Chelsea in 2006. 2-0 over Celtic in 2007, and 3-2 over West Ham last year. If you want to include the 2002 version where the MLS All-Stars played the US National team (you know, the one that went to the World Cup quarterfinals), then it’s 6-for-6 as MLS won that one too (by the way, the teamsheets make for hilarious reading in the current context).
That leads me to believe that even with the steady (and heartening) stream of US players leaving MLS for European pastures, the best 11 players in the league at any given point are still good enough to see off the Disinterested European Side in Preseason Form Du Jour. While I believe that in mid-season form, the Celtics and Fulhams of the world would win those matches, I also would venture to say that it would be far more competitive than Chelsea-Seattle was. I know that it’s not going out on a limb to say that an All-Star team will be better than one of its component clubs, but the underlying point is that the only explanation for the gap between the two is that MLS is overexpanding.
And that, friends and neighbors, is at the heart of the conundrum the league faces. If I live in a place like Rochester that clearly is a soccer hotbed (as far as those things go here in the States, anyway) but doesn’t have an MLS side, there is zero reason for me to give half a toss about the league. Hell, even living in NYC and with no alternative to the walking billboards (and NJ Transit, and the Giants Stadium security goons), I don’t see a reason for me to give a toss either. I watch tons of Premier League and Champions League matches that do not feature Arsenal, but the standard of play in MLS is not enough to make me carve out time from my day to watch Columbus vs. Toronto (though it does bear mentioning that even as a Celtic supporter, I would not watch Motherwell vs. Dundee United, either).
Again, I come back to over-expansion. The state of the sport here in the US is parsecs ahead of where it was in, say, 1989. More kids are playing the game under better coaches, and we’re producing a much higher standard of player at a much higher rate. But, in my limited MLS experience, they tend to be spread out dangerously thin across the league. I’ve always come away from an MLS game with the impression that 4 or 5 out of the 22 on the field really knew what they were doing, and that they have to be frustrated at the glaring inability of their peers to keep up with them. Back when someone like Deuce was in the league, I can only imagine how many times he would instinctively play a wonderful ball into the proper area, only for the effort to be futile because the recipient would never think to make the proper run in a million years. Say what you will as to why that player would never make that run (that’s a different post, though I agree with the theory that the problem stems from college soccer and its emphasis on physicality over ball control and tactics), but the fact remains that the top 5-10% of MLS players are on a plane that the other 90-95% can’t begin to comprehend.
The poster on the Arseblog forum has a valid point, though. The crux of it is that the league cannot grow without actively involving more (and better, when you look at one like Kansas City) markets, which gets new fans invested in the product. Fair enough. But, the trade-off is that snagging these new fans comes at the price of diluting the overall talent pool. If I’m a fan in Philadelphia or Vancouver, I am STOKED that an MLS club is coming to town…but after the initial novelty wears off, will they have the patience to watch an inferior product while the talent pool (hopefully) catches up to the number of available jobs?
Here’s the other problem, while I’m on the subject. It’s one thing to wave goodbye to players like Tim Howard or Jozy Altidore – they are of a high enough caliber where it would be detrimental to their careers to remain here. I can even justify to myself when Oguchi Onyewu spends several years playing for a mid-table side in the Belgian league. However, serious questions have to be asked when a player like our No. 3 goalkeeper decides to spend their time playing in the Norwegian leagues. Troy Perkins played with some level of distinction in MLS, but what does it say about the league when Norway is a step up?
Of course, much of that comes down to money. The product on the field isn’t spectacular, so you’re only going to get the hardcores and the curious families. Because of that though, the league isn’t going to have the money to retain the B- to B+ talent that is needed to improve the product on the field (forget the Howards and Altidores – they wouldn’t stay here even if that money were there, and nor should they). The guys like Perkins should absolutely be here though, and their absence goes some way towards explaining why people like me aren’t watching.
As far as how to address this issue, all I can say is that if I knew, I’d be writing this from my corner office at MLS HQ right now. Since I’m writing this from my cubicle on my lunch break at somewhere that definitely is not MLS, it’s safe to say that I have nothing constructive in the way of an answer. However, someone smarter than me is going to have to figure it out if MLS ever wants to escape the cycle of mediocrity it has found itself in since taking the step up from absolutely stomach-clenchingly bad to the barely-acceptable level it’s at now. I wish it luck though, because I really do want to like the product, and I really do want it to produce even more players to the USMNT. At this point though, I can’t help but be skeptical.