Monday, April 19, 2010

High-Profile Friendlies are Great for MLS

AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Major League Soccer has revised the Designated Player rule, allowing teams to sign up to three players for more than the maximum salary in hopes to bring in more of the game’s most popular/talented players.

However, teams are doing other things to bring more of the world’s best stateside.

MLS franchises will host a number of European clubs this summer in friendly matches. D.C. United announced they will square off against Italian giants AC Milan May 26. The Chicago Fire will take on Paris Saint-Germain and either Legia Warsaw or Red Star Belgrade in a friendly tournament. The Philadelphia Union has an agreement to play Spainish La Liga’s Valencia. United is also rumored to be pushing for a match with Scotland’s Glasgow Celtic.

The idea of these international club friendlies isn’t new. The Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls have both previously hosted Barcelona and the Los Angeles Galaxy have taken on AC Milan before, not to mention the MLS All-Star team facing Fulham, Chelsea, Celtic, West Ham, and Everton in its annual competition.

Still, the continuation of these friendlies, and with big-name clubs, is fantastic for the league.

Having these games means packed houses for the MLS club, making the league a lot of money. People of all different soccer backgrounds—from avid MLS fan, to the international club fan who never goes to an MLS game, to a casual sports fan who has heard about the wonders of the visiting club—fill the stadium to witness a team that plays soccer at the game’s highest level.

Last August, when Barcelona visited the Seattle Sounders, Qwest Stadium was filled with a stadium and Washington record of 66,848. A month earlier the Sounders hosted Chelsea in front of an attendance of 65,289.

The impact isn’t just a single game either. Out of these fans, a number of the non-regulars will be captivated by what they see from the home squad. Many will return to at least one other game that season. The more times a team can bring fans to the stadium, the better off the entire league will be.

These friendlies also generate respect from foreign clubs and players. International teams schedule these friendlies for two reasons: they want to either get regulars in form during the preseason or get bench players some action against quality competition and they also want to tap into the soccer market in the area.

If they feel there is no long-term economic benefit, or that the team will not provide a good challenge and game experience then they simply will choose someone else.

The players also often come away impressed with the level that MLS is at. Sometimes, playing in the United States can plant the seed in the players head to someday play in the league.

After Barcelona’s game against Seattle, Thierry Henry said about the Seattle fans, “It really reminded me of a crowd in Europe. They were all cheering the Sounders, and rightly so. It was tremendous and a great atmosphere. They made it really difficult for us in the first half.” Henry has long been rumored to play in the league.

Proving to be an exciting place to play encourages international stars to play in the league, raising the quality of play and bringing in more fans to fill the seats. Being respected by the players as well as the entire organization is also very important to MLS, as it tries to integrate into the world soccer landscape and create lasting partnerships and generate international interest from fan bases.

A by-product from these friendlies is the European giants scouting new talent and taking away the league’s best players.

Many people believe that for the league to be bigger it needs to keep the best American players in country, much like many of the best Italian players play in Serie A, or like college sports try to keep the best in-state players.

However MLS cannot compete with neither the monetary contracts European clubs can offer nor the prestige of the competition of the leagues. Therefore, clubs can swoop in and make an offer to a young American prospect (see Holden, Stuart and Altidore, Jozy).

But MLS was not designed to compete with the bigger European leagues. MLS was designed for something very specific and it’s actually done its job.

Before the league was created it was difficult for Americans to latch on with top-tier clubs and get good playing time. Without proper experience and development the national team suffered. So part of the stipulation of hosting the World Cup in 1994 was that a top-level American league needed to be created, thus MLS was born.

The objective of MLS was to give opportunities and experience to young American players in an effort to develop them to create a more competitive national team.

Take a look at last summer’s Confederations Cup roster, the team that beat top-ranked Spain in the semi-finals. Fifteen players from the 23-man roster got their start playing in MLS, including arguably America’s two best players Landon Donovan and Tim Howard.

With current MLS teams still striving to make a profit spending on player salaries needs to be regulated and monitored or else the league faces the same demise that the NASL experienced.

So MLS teams develop these American players who grow into good national team members and get recognized by some of the biggest European clubs in the world. The player moves to the club and continues to get even better making an even greater impact for the United States.

While it doesn’t always work this way –it’s tough to say the Greek League, where Freddy Adu and Eddie Johnson ply their trade, is better competition-wise than MLS—generally the league has made a big impact on the American soccer scene, for both players and the National team.

So what happens when Stu Holden, after a few good years in MLS, gets bought by the English Premier League’s Bolton Wanderers?

Houston inserts Geoff Cameron into his slot as he works to become the next player to get a national team call-up and transfer to a big Euro club. One player’s exit is another player’s opportunity.

So while it would be nice to have all of America’s best playing in MLS, it isn’t feasible, nor is it necessary. Not every league is Italy’s Serie A, England’s Premier League, or Spain’s La Liga.

So let’s embrace these friendlies. It’s just another way to improve MLS’ reputation around the globe and to increase soccer’s presence in America.

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