Summer friendlies not all good for MLS
On Saturday I was on a train to Harrison, New Jersey, surrounded by Americans in Arsenal jerseys. Eavesdropping on the conversations provided an interesting snapshot of an American soccer summer, in that very particular moment when the World Cup is over and the European teams are doing their territorial thing across the country.
To my right, a woman in one of the few New York Red Bulls jerseys on view was conducting an instantly recognizable evangelistic conversation with a man wearing a very fresh-looking Arsenal Mesut Özil jersey, whose hand she was holding (literally as well as figuratively):
"Yeah, Henry's like, 36 now, and he's not as fast as he used to be, but he's still got the skill, and he's like a playmaker these days. And they've got this other striker who's scored more than anyone else this season, that's partly because of all Henry's assists. And the goalkeeper's really good, too. ... If you enjoy this, we should come back next week. It's not so much the standard of play, as the experience ..."
Her companion was nodding carefully, apparently trying to phrase the words "I just want to cross 'seen a game with a big team' off on my bucket list" while negotiating whatever delicate balance of sexual politics was going on between the two. I looked again and was sure I could see fold creases on his jersey.
I tuned into the conversation to my left:
"Did you see [Manchester] United beat L.A. 7-0?"
"Yeah, that just shows the gulf between the two leagues."
"Yeah, that's like, brutal. ... I don't think today will be as bad. Thinking, 3-1, 4-1. Hoping Henry gets one for New York."
"Is [Robin] Van Persie playing?"
"No [said with incredibly blithe patience under the circumstances], he went to United four years ago or something."
Across from me, a father and son in matching retro 1971 FA Cup Arsenal jerseys were sitting stoically. I pointed at the badge and smiled:
The son looked anxiously at his dad, worried I might be about to take on other forms. But the dad grinned back at me: "Dude had sideburns."
I contemplated saying something more about freak lawnmower accidents but figured it might be early in our friendship to bring up such matters.
There was a pause. The dad spoke next: "You know he was in Minnesota, right?"
I didn't. I checked later. He was.
Over at the other end of the carriage, a tentative "Arsenal, Arsenal" chant broke out.
I'm not going to delve into which of these fragments was the most representative of anything in particular about the state of the soccer nation -- if anything, the contradictory levels of enthusiasm, knowledge and appetite are probably their own conclusion. Soccer is always emphatically making it and indifferently failing in America, sometimes within the same train carriage.
And when, indeed if, we look back on the few weeks between the World Cup and the start of the European leagues, a time when Euro dinosaurs roamed free on the range, we'll be equally hard-pressed to draw any significant sporting conclusions from the 30 or so games featuring combinations of MLS sides, European powerhouses and Crystal Palace. In the words of Homer Simpson: "There is no moral -- it's just a bunch of stuff that happened."
At a macro level, the audience for these games is encouraging -- people show up in big numbers around the country to see marquee games in series such as the independently promoted International Champions Cup. And for the MLS teams that host games, it's often a chance to show off their soccer-specific stadiums in "attract mode," in the hope of retaining any curious first-timers drawn out by big European opposition.
But at another local level, a staggered schedule that places midseason MLS sides against preseason European teams makes for meaningless encounters, other than to usually confirm to those who only watch European teams, and not the domestic product, that they are right to do so.
At some point in its development, MLS will have to negotiate its way past that prejudice, but more pressingly, it needs to find a way to stop selling its own competition short in the scheduling of these games.
Arsene Wenger traditionally resisted American tours because the travel was less to do with preseason fitness than marketing. You wonder what he'd make of the imminent schedule for his opposing coach on Saturday, Mike Petke -- his team segued from the Arsenal game to a Wednesday night game in Salt Lake, then back to New York for a game against New England on Saturday.
Add in a looming CONCACAF Champions League group stage -- another competition whose knockout stages clash awkwardly with the MLS schedule -- and you can rather see why some MLS coaches were grimacing at the "privilege" of playing these games. I don't know what D.C. United, for example, gained from traveling to a 3-0 defeat by Fulham in Jacksonville, Florida, but it probably wasn't a thousand more fans to stand with the Screaming Eagles.
MLS is expanding at what some consider a worryingly precipitous rate, which comes with a schedule that must by necessity either extend deeper into winter months, giving us games like the sub-zero MLS Cup final we had last year, or condense further and bring more congestion in the summer months. (There is another option, which is to revisit the idea of a third conference.) And with Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga sides cheerfully jostling for market share in MLS territory each summer, that will eventually mean some hard questions about priorities at MLS board level.
That's for another summer, though. This summer, I got off the train, and the Red Bulls beat Arsenal 1-0. Which just goes to show the gulf between the leagues. Or not.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.