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Aug 15, 2006

La Liga the true yardstick for MLS

One week after the rousing victory against Chelsea, MLS was brought back down to earth a little bit by Barcelona and Real Madrid. Indeed, Saturday's doubleheader reaffirmed something that has become fairly evident, as European clubs continue to make the trek across the pond.

While there is a strong desire among American fans to treat the English Premier League as the ultimate measuring stick, Spain's La Liga actually offers a much better indication of how far behind MLS players are from the world's elite.

Much to the dismay of the many "Eurosnobs" who live in this country, the days of any American team being made to look amateurish are clearly over. Yet, the only instances in recent years when MLS clubs have looked somewhat overmatched and in awe have come against the two Spanish giants.

On Saturday, the Red Bulls were on the receiving end of a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the reigning European champions. Later, Fabio Capello's new-look Madrid, still very much a work in progress, handed Real Salt Lake a frustrating 2-0 defeat.

Players like Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Robinho simply seemed a class apart, dancing around defenders with relative ease -- not unlike Zinedine Zidane in last summer's friendly against the L.A. Galaxy.

Admittedly, Saturday's two representatives are hardly the best MLS has to offer, and earlier in the week, D.C. United did hold Madrid to a 1-1 draw. Even in that game, however, a gulf in technical ability was fairly apparent to anyone with a trained eye.

Against Chelsea, it was much harder to distinguish between the two teams. The MLS All-Stars seemed just as comfortable on the ball and, more importantly, just as likely to produce moments of individual brilliance.

The English champions were clearly short on fitness and cohesion, as they begin to integrate their latest batch of signings, but in the absence of that, they lacked the flair and creativity necessary to break down the well-organized MLS defense. They were predictable in attack and far too reliant on set pieces.

It is a typical weakness of English teams that fans and media alike have long decried, and it has cost Chelsea dearly in the Champions League the past couple of seasons. It's also a characteristic American soccer seems strangely intent on emulating.

The United States has made remarkable progress the last 15 years -- the recent World Cup notwithstanding -- but if there is one strategic mistake still holding back U.S. soccer, it is an unhealthy fixation with English game.

Most foreign soccer coaches in this country come from the British school, while the majority of promising American players grow up dreaming of playing in the Premier League. For their part, fans in America clearly identify with the EPL above all else.

Attend any pub the morning of an important English game, such as this past Sunday's Charity Shield, and the place will be replete with Americans rooting on their favorite club with a fervor noticeably absent from MLS games. Most American soccer fans will defend the EPL to the death in any "best league in Europe" debate.

Thus, it's not surprising that beating Chelsea was viewed by most in this county as the footballing equivalent of scaling Mount Everest, or that the soccer power the U.S. national team most resembles in its style of play is England.

English soccer has plenty of virtues, not the least of which is an admirable and undying commitment to fair play, but its also worth wondering if MLS has already gotten everything there is to get from the EPL, and whether it is time to look elsewhere.

At a time when the national team finds itself at a crossroads of sorts following the disappointment in Germany, unsure whether it wants to become England or Brazil, the domestic game could perhaps help steer American soccer in a different path.

Of course, deciding to produce creative, artistic types won't make them suddenly appear, but the first step is recognition. If given the choice between unearthing the next Messi or the next Frank Lampard, a disturbing amount of American soccer fans might actually opt for Lampard.

From a neutral's point of view, it's simply no contest. Having been among the more than 79,000 inside Giants stadium on Saturday night, I can attest to that. The sight of Barcelona in full-flight was nothing short of exhilarating. Likewise, those in attendance at the Home Depot Center last summer certainly got their money' s worth from Zidane.

Sadly, for all their money spent, Chelsea is incapable of putting on such a show. Jose Mourinho's squad is the model of efficiency and consistency, but there is simply nothing spectacular about them.

Make no mistake; these exhibitions are as much about selling the sport to the American public as they are about helping MLS develop. The performance put forth by Ronaldinho and co. on Saturday was enough to make believers out of non-soccer fans. Here's hoping it was also enough to convince the already converted to redirect their attention.

Here are some other observations from this past weekend:

1. The Red Bulls did cause some problems for the Barcelona defense in the first half, mostly courtesy of Edson Buddle. Having played against Buddle during my youth soccer days back in Westchester, New York, I was particularly curious to see how he would fare against such world-class competition. Not surprisingly, Buddle more than held his own. He was special even back then.

2. Bruce Arena was certainly gracious following the game in speaking about how U.S. soccer is still struggling to produce the same kinds of players a team like Barcelona boasts. Nevertheless, it's always amusing to hear a freshly departed national team coach, in the wake of a major failure, take every opportunity to remind people about his country's limited talent pool.

3. Ronaldinho and David Beckham were unquestionably the two stars of the night. A month removed from his World Cup nightmare, the popularity of the bucktoothed Brazilian has not waned in the slightest bit. His every touch of the ball still met with cheers and he carries a Michael Jordan-esque presence about him.

Beckham's prestige has long been impervious to any actually happenings on the field. No longer an automatic selection for England, he is also in serious danger of losing his starting spot for Real Madrid. Yet, he remains the club's biggest attraction, and the same will likely be true next summer, assuming the Spanish giants return to American soil.

David Mosse is an assistant editor for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at mosse_david@yahoo.com