Wednesday, July 20, 2011

An MLS-friendlier friendly

With Will away on vacation, weekend guest Jacob is gonna stick around a bit to keep our MLS balance up. Jake it away, dude...

If any team in MLS needed a pick-me-up, it was the Vancouver Whitecaps. Wading through a sea of injuries that any team, much less a youthful expansion team, could do without. With a league worst 14 points from 20 games Tommy Soehn could have been easily forgiven for sending out his best XI in search of a result against Manchester City that might have given his young squad and its loyal supporters something to hang their hats on.

Instead, the former DC United manager deployed a mix of starters and non-starters, substituted liberally, and gave his latest signing in Mustapha Jarju a half to gel with his fireball strike partner Eric Hassli. Coach Soehn very nearly had his cake and ate it too as his squad's superior conditioning allowed them to dominate vast portions of what was quite visibly a friendly. Only the cleaner finishing touches of John Guidetti (68') and Shaun Wright-Phillips (84') placed the Whitecaps on the wrong end of the 2-1 final result.

The result however, was clearly never the emphasis for the Whitecaps. Before the game goalkeeper Jay Nolly noted the team's need to 'Continue to try and possess the ball and get up the wings' because 'If we get away from that, it won't help us away to San Jose on Wednesday'. The players on the pitch for the Whitecaps Monday night undoubtedly showed some hunger to match their young talent, but just as importantly, their performance revealed maturity.

While there is a plethora evidence supporting the notion that Major League Soccer and the game in America is indeed growing - the rise of the development academies, gradually loosening purse strings, and increasing attendance figures- the approach teams take to star-studded friendlies is equally telling. For instance, Roberto Mancini started a smattering of the best players petro-dollars can buy (Yaya Toure, Adam Johnson, and Vladimir Weiss) while bringing on others such as Mario Balotelli and Gael Clichy at halftime. In so doing, his approach was none too different from that of his significantly less-heralded counterpart.

Certainly the parallels between the Blues and the Caps stop there, but the adolescence of Major League Soccer is apparent well beyond the Pacific Northwest. In Saturday night's match-up between league-leading LA Galaxy and the embarrassment of talent that is Real Madrid, the Galaxy trailed a respectable 2-0 at halftime. Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel were then subbed off, Cristiano Ronaldo and co. stepped on and the Galacticos inevitably drubbed Los Angeles 4-1.

For the Galaxy, the game was clearly an educational excursion. As the ever-quotable David Beckham reiterated, "We got a lot of young players out there." Of course it's easy to point to youth after being outclassed in an iconic stadium by an equally iconic opponent, but if Bruce Arena meant business would Landon Donovan have played anything less than a full 90 minutes?

The Galaxy indeed have their sights set on trophies rather than over-hyped friendlies. As well they should, having invested as much as they have in the squad that currently sits atop the MLS table. One only need recall defending MLS Cup champions DC United throwing the kitchen sink at friendly foes Chelsea in 2005 only to succumb to a second-half Hernan Crespo strike to realize the stark contrast in today's treatment of MLS vs. FC Big Club friendlies. The fact that MLS clubs are now treating these matches as chances to improve their team rather than prove their quality or wrestle away a Napoleon complex only goes to show that American soccer is indeed growing up.

After that particular exhibition, then-manager Peter Nowak was in his usual hard-nosed glory stating, "This is what we're all about, we're never going to step back." In regard to Chelsea's reserve-fueled comeback Nowak also noted, "This is what the great teams do." Jose Mourinho and that Chelsea team went on to repeat as Premier League Champions while DC United left 2005 with a burnt out squad, no silverware and the beginning of a sad seven years with only a US Open Cup to console its once-envied trophy case.

As MLS and its coaches have since realized, decent teams and wise managers don't burn out their players in meaningless friendlies.

- Jacob Klinger

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