The MLS doing business with Real Madrid is a good idea. Sending an MLS Select team to face Real Madrid for the Trofeo Santiago Bernabeu was a questionable idea.
The 5-0 margin of defeat did not help the MLS' reputation. Other clubs have been routed in this game -- Everton (1987) and Colo Colo ('91) lost by 6-1 scores, and Benfica ('96) and Penarol ('98) lost by 4-0 scores -- but these are long-established teams with huge followings and are able to withstand setbacks. The MLS does not have that type of foundation, though, and should be more selective in setting up future encounters like this.
Not that the MLS should shy away from games. In fact, the MLS should attempt to set up more contests against the world's best clubs, but in the context of a competitive, high-stakes arena. The MLS named Steve Nicol as coach of this Select team and used three New England players, rewarding the Revolution for having the league's best record. If there is a next time, the MLS should reward the league-leading team by sending the entire team, instead of an all-star group.
It just happens that the Revolution have been eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup and have a 10-day break between MLS games; meanwhile, FC Dallas and D.C. United will be missing key players for their Open Cup game while they return from Madrid.
Part of the problem this MLS Select team confronted was the fact that this was an exhibition, a showcase match for Real Madrid, and it seemed the MLSers were reluctant to go hard into tackles. The MLS players might have been intimidated, as well, or simply lacking the experience to know when and where to defuse Real Madrid attacks (and counterattacks) before they get started. Thomas Gravesen and Michel Salgado were not shy about coming in hard for Real Madrid.
Indeed, Real Madrid appears to be changing its tactics under Vanderlei Luxemburgo.
The Meringues were most devastating in counterattack, Zinedine Zidane looking to find Ronaldo or Raul with plenty of space in which to run. More experienced or less respectful defenders would have tried to stop Ronaldo before he got started; once Ronaldo got into stride, he showed he has retained lethal finishing ability.
Julio Baptista was also a handful for the MLS midfield. David Beckham's 23rd-minute free kick was unstoppable for the first goal, but Baptista should have been slowed up long before being taken down in the penalty arc. Defenders should have forced Ronaldo to keep the ball on his left foot on his two goals, but the only sure way to stifle him is to not allow him to run onto balls unimpeded. Raul seldom threatened until late in the match, possibly distracted by an earpiece and absurd electronic communication with Luxemburgo, a device which is not allowed in Spain's La Liga.
MLS players have still not been exposed enough to sophisticated counterattacking. And it is especially difficult for an all-star aggregation to defend against such tactics. Possibly, the MLS should have deployed an more defense-oriented team. Pablo Mastroeni, instead of performing in central defense, would have been better suited to partner with Shalrie Joseph as a holding midfielder. Douglas Sequeira ended the match in central defense and he, too, is better as a defensive midfielder.
The evaluations of the game in the Spanish press seem harsh in translation, El Mundo described the MLS team "like a toy in the hands of Madrid"; "for the respect of the paying public, opponents should be subjected to a minimum of quality control." Other media noted Real Madrid did not play as well as the five-goal margin of victory indicated. It was noted that the MLS team was "toothless," treating the game as an exhibition and taking care not to spoil the party or inflict injuries (according to the sports daily AS). But reviews will be even more critical when Real Madrid opens La Liga season against Cadiz Sunday.
The MLS team was a prop, a designated victim, in this match. Real Madrid needed to look good, the MLS needed exposure.
But this shows just how lacking in exposure the MLS is. Spanish media did not know quite how to perceive this team, other than that of lambs being led to slaughter, an attitude conditioned also by the fact that Real Madrid has been such a dominant club. Madrid fans have probably expected their club to win every game for the last 50 years, and that has been a realistic expectation. The MLS Select team was going to be just another victim.
Of course, this is not the image the MLS wants to have. But the best way to establish a reputation for a country or professional league is to place the spotlight on the best teams and play for high stakes. Instead of inviting clubs on exhibition tours during the summer, the MLS could revive the NASL's Trans Atlantic Challenge Cup, offering big-money incentives.
A few years ago, Real Madrid gained the nickname "Galacticos" because of the all-world makeup of the team, at a time when nearly everyone in the lineup except Claude Makelele was interested only in attacking. Since Makelele departed for Chelsea, "Galacticos" has been applied sarcastically, implying that this is a group of highly-skilled individuals, uninterested in playing as a team. But that is an exagerrated and facile explanation of Real Madrid's recent failings.
The Trofeo Bernabeu showed that soccer is still very much a team game. The Meringues, their lineup balanced, play the game effectively and efficiently and, yes, like a team.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com .