Soccer in the USA is one of the fastest emerging football markets in the world, of that there is no doubt. A glance at the steady expansion in the MLS over the last five years is testament to that, with successful franchises having sprung up recently in Seattle, Toronto, Philadelphia and Portland.
Matches are now played in front of capacity crowds at soccer-specific stadiums—as opposed to the barely full NFL stadiums that were used to host the sub-standard matches of earlier years—with an array of international stars such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Torsten Frings turning out for their respective teams.
So business is booming—in football at least—in the USA and, inevitably, the European giants of the game want a piece of that American pie.
While the game's senior officials, like MLS Commissioner Don Garber, were licking their lips at the prospect of revenue opportunities and media interest brought about by these matches, the teams and hardcore fans are suffering.
Are MLS overdoing their European exhibiton matches?
The MLS fixture list is among the most complicated and congested in football. Given the country's size, the travel involved and varying types of weather, the league starts in March and finishes seven months later in October.
This means that when European teams embark on their preseason tours of the States, they play MLS teams during one of the most important times of their season: the lead-up to the playoffs.
To put this in perspective, the MLS schedule is so tight that they have no international breaks, meaning league fixtures are often played without their best players who are on international duty. And it’s the fans who suffer.
Essentially, the fan backlash is aimed at the MLS hierarchy and their club’s owners. The latter hike up ticket prices for these showpiece games, while the former seemingly value these meaningless matches over their league and international fixtures.
The friendlies do make a lot of money for US soccer, yet raising the profile of MLS through these exhibition matches has backfired.
Manchester United's summer tour followed a similar escapade last year, during which they were humbled 2-1 by Sporting Kansas on a largely unsuccessful, results-wise, time of it. This year, they returned with more purpose, more intent, beating the MLS All-Stars and Chicago Fire comprehensively, after starting their tour with a 7-0 drubbing over Seattle Sounders.
Should MLS dedicate time off for World Cup Qualifiers?
Sigi Schmid’s Seattle Sounders first team was 1-0 down at half time, but with the taxing MLS schedule looming in the not-to-distant future, he sent out his reserves for the second half. Understandable from Schmidt, but harming for the MLS product.
One of the key issues faced by the MLS in the USA and Canada is it's widely thought to be of a poor standard compared to other national top flights. Being the way America is, they want, and expect, to be the best.
Manchester United beating one of the leading teams 7-0, and backing it up comfortably with a 4-0 win over MLS All-Stars certainly leads sets of the insecurity within the fan base. Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli and his ridiculous showboating against LA Galaxy was also seen as an act of disrespect.
MLS teams took such a battering from international sides it prompted Garber to publicly criticise their performances: "Our view is that if we’re going to play these games, we ought to play to win," the MLS commissioner said.
MLS teams are at fault as much as the league is. Simply put, if these friendlies put any more strain on their schedules, they should refuse them. But would the owners of fledgling sports franchises want to miss out on the revenue streams? Doubtful.
The New York Red Bulls have no shortage of money, yet they traveled all the way to London for a meaningless friendly tournament, playing two 90 minute high-action matches within the space of a day. Though they returned with the Emirates Cup, drawing with Arsenal and beating PSG, few believe it was worth sacrificing the energy of their under-performing players.
Seattle Sounders are one of the most profitable teams in American soccer. Seattle also happens to be located in the very northwest of the USA meaning extensive traveling to away games. They also play in the CONCACAF Champions League, meaning even more matches are to be played.
Yet Seattle still took up the chance to play Manchester United in the most important and busy part of their season. Why?
The showpiece games of European giants vs European giants/Club America or Chivas in Herbalife's World Football Challenge without doubt benefit MLS and US soccer. Games such as these attracts wallets, passion, attendance and media interest to the sport of soccer.
However, involved MLS teams, forcing them to take time out of their already-stretched schedule to play meaningless matches is unnecessary and idiotic.
It appears football fans from all over the globe are in conflict with the football powers that be, and supporters of MLS teams are no different.
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