If you’re a season ticket holder at pretty much any MLS club, the chances are that you’re looking forward to this summer’s run of friendlies against European club teams. Or maybe; you’re not looking forward to it – it’s possible you’d rather see your team concentrate on actual competition.
Several of these clashes are being bundled together into the strangely named “World Football Challenge” (why do they need to call it “football”? – no prizes for guessing who this is aimed at)
The main motivation for the swathe of exhibition matches is clearly money; for the majority of these extra games, MLS teams can be pretty much guaranteed a healthy turn out, from both the local faithful wanting to see their team take on a ‘big boy’, and from fans of the opposition who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to see them live. There are also several matches between foreign teams that are likely to be an even bigger draw; the stand out of these games seems to be a rematch of this seasons Champions League final, between Barcelona and Manchester United.
Teams have always scheduled a raft of pre-season friendly matches in the summer – traditionally it was a good way to introduce new signings to their team, it helped improved match sharpness, and also allowed the manager to fine tune tactics prior to getting to the important stuff. This obviously isn’t limited to European sides; MLS teams do the same prior to their season starts. However, in recent years these have also become huge moneyspinners for the clubs concerned, and many will base their entire pre-season schedule around a tour of another country. Usually these will be in what they consider to be ‘untapped markets’; Manchester United were really the first to take this idea seriously and in recent years they have visited China, South Korea, and Indonesia in an attempt to firm up their support from the Premier League-watching public in these countries. From a purely business-related view, this makes sense. Exposure of soccer in the UK (and across most of the world) has probably reached saturation point – at some stage there is no more money to squeeze out of their ‘customers’, and so finding new ‘consumers’ is the only way to go.
With North America finally appearing to be becoming accepting of soccer – more US fans applied for tickets at last year’s World Cup than any other country – it appears that the attention of the world’s biggest clubs has switched Stateside. In many ways, it’s a perfect fit; all of Europe’s top leagues have excellent television coverage, there are plenty of stadia able to accommodate the large attendances that these games can generate, and finally – and most crucially – there are plenty of local sides happy to give the big teams a game.
It is this last point that is most pertinent. Major League Soccer’s summer schedule naturally means that teams must squeeze these games in around their existing fixtures. So instead of having a continuous season allowing teams to reach their peak just in time for the play-offs, you see MLS teams taking a break from actual competition so that they can pack their ground with thousands of lookie-lous wanting to see Wayne Rooney (or in San Jose’s case, Roman Bednar!)
Obviously, the financial rewards on offer for MLS teams is seen to outweigh the downside. It must be said, though, that with ten teams making the playoffs this season, the pressure to perform mid-season might be less than would otherwise be the case. Nonetheless, the point remains that the mid-season friendly match are a money-grab, and can detract from the point of the league.
More than that though, is the risk that too many matches against opposition such as this actually harms the long-term health of the league. It’s fair to say that Major League Soccer is not the greatest league in the world, quality-wise. For those of us who follow ‘our’ league and teams, that isn’t really that important. Soccer in the US has a very committed base which goes to great lengths to promote the game – you only have to see the work of the American Outlaws to understand that – but ‘converting’ fans of other sports can be difficult, especially when there are so many other leagues to watch. The perception of the typical ‘Eurosnob’ is of a person who refuses to become engaged with MLS, usually because “It’s not very good”.
Attempting to quantifying the “goodness” – or otherwise – of a particular soccer league is at best a rather pointless endeavour. The players in the Premier League are supposed to be the best in the world – that’s what their salaries suggest, at least – but it doubtful whether this makes it the most exciting league. For any competition to be enticing to an audience, it needs to be competitive. In the past decade or two, leagues such as the EPL, La Liga and Serie A have become nothing more than processions for the top clubs to sweep all before them. Whilst that is fine if you follow Chelsea, Barcelona or Inter Milan, it isn’t as exciting for everybody else. It is this lack of (and I hesitate to use this word) parity that has allowed Germany’s Bundesliga to grow in popularity, and not only are the team there generally not in a huge amount of debt, the competition is very exciting and crowds are booming.
By inviting big teams to take them on in the middle of the summer, MLS clubs are exhibiting a short-sightedness can not be healthy for the league in future years. If Manchester United hammer New England 5-1 on Wednesday night, the naysayers will be back on their “MLS is Rubbish” tilt again, and if the Revolution happen to win, those same people will trot out excuses that Manchester United are in pre-season, they don’t care about winning, etc, etc. More than this, though, is the risk that the kids who’ve schlepped all the way out to Gillette Stadium will probably not come away wanting to return for an MLS games; they’re more likely to want to tune into the EPL when that kicks off again in a few week’s time. The fear should be that these potential supporters of the game in the US will be lost before they’ve even had a chance to be found.
Don’t even get me started about New York Red Bulls disappearing to London for the weekend at the end of the month…