By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 3, 2013) US Soccer Players – There’s this push/pull between old and new in Major League Soccer that tries to cover up the old problems under a new veneer. What this disguises is that not enough has changed between MLS then and MLS now. This might center on the Pacific Northwest where Portland and primarily Seattle are trying to convince themselves and their supporters they play in a different league, but it’s not just the two darlings of MLS expansion. It’s an issue for any club in the league trying to push past the limits that remain in place.
Last night with Seattle hosting Santos Laguna in a game that should matter more than a mundane regular season encounter, we got multiple examples of the problems with the MLS brand of soccer.
What I’m going to call roster falloff is nothing new to MLS fans. Though it shows up in league games, but it’s especially noticeable when playing against foreign clubs with more resources. Take any MLS team, and there’s significant falloff from the top three or four players and the rest of the squad. This isn’t the National Basketball Association, where most teams only have one or two true stars but the rest of the squad is still NBA quality. It’s the bulk of the squad unable to provide the kind of play the better players would take for granted in other leagues around the world. That includes Liga MX, as Santos Laguna waited for Seattle to wear themselves out on Tuesday night.
For MLS, it’s always been about mixing players on a budget and using the questionable parity that creates as proof that the system works. Maybe it does if there’s no means of comparison. If the aspiration for MLS teams remains the playoffs, what that creates is a closed league only truly relevant in relation to itself.
Instead, MLS chooses to compete with and play against clubs that regularly pay to keep players, compete for those players against other clubs within their own leagues, and expect that to be the cost of doing business as a professional soccer club. Liga MX teams might not have the same reputation as European clubs for paying transfer fees to bring in talent, but they do pay players at a level that gives them noticeably deeper squads.
MLS might try to soften the comparisons by pointing at what New York and Los Angeles spend on players, Seattle paying a transfer fee in the offseason to help their team, and other evidence that a willing owner can inflate his club’s payroll. The problem is that still only matters to the top three or four players and the bulk of the squad remains under the regular MLS model. For the most part, this league doesn’t choose to compete in keeping elite American players in the domestic league, opts for economy when it comes to signing players, and treats selling talent overseas as success even when it weakens the league.
Again, where this is most evident is when MLS teams play foreign clubs. Even in friendly settings, the talent gap is unavoidable. This isn’t euro snobbery playing down MLS success even in the games they manage to win, it’s simply acknowledging the lack of options MLS teams have when it comes to truly competing. It’s not the roster falloff that’s fully at fault of course, it’s also what MLS teams do with those limited options.
Facing what the league itself stresses is the type of game MLS teams should be winning, Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid opted for what we’ll politely call a transitional eleven. Again, nothing new with MLS where coaches regularly favor any league game over other competitions. In a real sense, it’s a league at odds with itself, undoing the potential benefit the CONCACAF Champions League offers as the gateway to the Club World Cup. Does anyone really think going into the second-leg scoreless would be a job well done for Seattle? This is a team that needed whatever cushion they could come up with at home and then try to keep the score down in Mexico. Instead, they went with a new look and lost at home.
MLS doesn’t have the cult of the manager like used to exist at most English clubs. What they do have is the insistence of the front office in hedging when it comes to CONCACAF Champions League games. In fairness, it offers a built-in excuse. Seattle is having trouble in MLS play, so they focus on fixing that even if it means sitting a few regulars at the semifinal stage of the Champions League. That doesn’t get the criticism it deserves from all sides. Until that changes, it’s an acceptable strategy.
Part of the reason why is that it flatters MLS in its own internal dialogue. Of course that last or next league game is just as important. Here, the regular season matters each and every week, even in a playoff league where the reward for finishing first in the regular season is entry into the Champions League.
Take a half step away from the league first thinking, and anyone should see that it’s silly. The league squanders the reward, with teams insisting that the regular season always comes first. It doesn’t, not even for a club riding a March losing streak. Seattle getting to the Champions League final in April is more important than showing the rest of the Western Conference they can contend in 2013. There’s more than enough time to give a best effort and do both. Or at least there was before Seattle squandered that first-leg against Santos Laguna.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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