English squads show MLS teams how far they still have to go

Posted: July 25, 2014

WEDNESDAY was not a good day for the ego of Major League Soccer.

At its core, European clubs coming to the United States to play summer exhibition games as part of preseason training is about expanding brand names and making some dollars during a time normally devoted to conditioning.

They take the results of these glorified scrimmages about as seriously as NFL teams take the results of preseason games or major league baseball teams take the results of spring-training games.

It's more about working on things and experimenting for when league play starts in August.

For the MLS teams, it is also an opportunity to get exposure for their brands by going up against "world-recognizable" franchises.

In the practical scheme of what it means going forward in the MLS season, the results don't matter all that much.

Still, when an MLS squad gets thumped by a foreign club, it perpetuates the belief that pro soccer in the United States is still no match for top European teams.

On Wednesday, the MLS showed its goods against the English Premier League - which, top to bottom, is probably considered the strongest in the world.

The results were a big ouch for MLS.

In a matchup of the most recent titleholders, EPL champion Manchester City whipped MLS Cup winner Sporting Kansas City, 4-1.

That was nothing compared with the whitewashing by Manchester United over the LA Galaxy in a game between two glamour franchises. In front of 84,362 fans in the Rose Bowl and a national television audience on ESPN2, the Red Devils took apart the Galaxy, 7-0.

In Canada, Toronto FC lost, 3-2, to Tottenham Hotspur, and FC Dallas completed the MLS 0-for against the EPL by losing, 2-0, to Aston Villa.

To be fair, all of these squads used liberal substitutions and did not play key performers major minutes. Remember, the primary goal was to come out of the game with no injuries.

Still, competition is competition, and considering that the MLS teams are halfway through their regular seasons while EPL squads are in preseason training, one would have expected MLS to have some sort of tangible advantages in fitness and cohesion.

What happened just emphasized the difference in quality.

"It's embarrassing, because the score line doesn't reflect who the LA Galaxy are," said Los Angeles captain Robbie Keane, who scored more than 100 goals in the EPL.

While Keane might be factually correct, it doesn't matter much, because much of the rest of the world still perceives that MLS is what it showed on Wednesday.

In Italy on Wednesday, former Chelsea and English left back Ashley Cole, who just signed with AC Roma, reportedly said, "I had offers from the USA, but I'm not ready to relax on a beach yet."

Whether Cole intentionally took a swipe at MLS' stature or not, he did.

MLS is likely among the world's top 15 leagues, but the inferiority stigma attached to soccer in the USA goes back nearly 8 decades.

That doesn't change easily.

For the United States to become a serious player on the global scene, MLS must become a world-class league. It is the primary training ground for young American talent, and if it does not keep improving, the USA's international potential will always be capped several steps short of greatness.

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who guided the United States in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, easily identified the primary issue facing MLS after his team's dismantling.

"We have too many players who are technically deficient right now," Arena said, an observation that could apply to every MLS team. "It's also speed of thought; quickness in moving, winning tackles; running off the ball.

"All simple things we frequently talk about, but unless you see it live, it's sometimes hard to have a picture of it."

Right now, the best way to improve the quality of play in MLS is still to bring in quality international talent that raises the bar for the young American players. Competing with and against better players helps you develop into a better player.

It is vital that MLS not be viewed as the old North American Soccer League, in which past-their-prime internationals used name recognition to cash one last check.

Cole is the perfect prototype of the international player who the MLS should look to acquire, a former star who might be trending downward but still has a lot of quality play left - players such as Keane, former France international Thierry Henry, who was 32 when he joined the New York Red Bulls in 2010; England international Jermain Defoe, 31, of Toronto FC; Spain all-time scoring leader David Villa, 32, of 2015 expansion club New York City FC; and Brazil legend Kaka, 32, of 2015 expansion team Orlando City.

How many other players think like Cole about MLS?

The perception of MLS wasn't helped when EPL teams that are just starting training ran roughshod over teams considered among MLS' best.

The MLS All-Stars face Bundesliga and international power Bayern Munich on Aug. 6 in Portland, Ore. For Bayern, it's just another preseason exhibition. For MLS, it matters more, because perception still matters.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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