Opinion

Midseason friendlies: The necessary evil

Photo: Paul Rudderow

To start this article, I’m going to revise a famous quote from one Benjamin Franklin. I’m sure if he were alive today, he’d probably share in the lament:

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes…and midsummer friendlies.

These friendlies are often spun as necessary evils, the partnership of thriving European teams emerging from their summer slumber and MLS teams keen on proving their place against the big boys.

Yet for a variety of reasons, this year’s friendlies seem less beneficial for MLS. Maybe they’ve always been this way, but a World Cup year puts things under a more powerful lens.

World Cup means time off for big players

The highlight of the “friendly season,” if we can call it that, is the MLS All-Star Team vs. Bayern Munich. The German League champions boast many World Cup champions now, with Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer, and Mario Gotze (who scored the Cup-winning goal) a part of their side.

The downside is that these players often need a post-Cup break. Goal.com has reported that Schweinsteiger may need as much as 6 weeks off to heal. Otherwise it seems pretty quiet as far as whether other stars who featured in Brazil like Arjen Robben will take the pitch in Portland,though it is nice to see Julian Green has come over with the first team.

If the competition meant anything, big-time absences would help the MLS team. But this is about the spectacle, and big name visitors are often a major part of the promotion of the the All-Star Game. How many people will tune in to see Robben or Schweinsteiger only to be disappointed if they are not available?

Plus you always have unfair comparisons. Whatever the result, groups on both sides of the aisle will overplay the result to suit their particular point of view. It’s an exhibition, and it ought to be left at that, regardless.

Premier League now a formidable foe on TV

NBC’s deal with the English Premier League makes this batch of friendlies more difficult as well. The hottest managerial name coming out of the World Cup was Dutch coach Louis van Gaal. No sooner had he gotten off the plane from Brazil that he began his new job at Manchester United, one of the best supported clubs here in the States.

In addition to United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur are all big EPL clubs playing matches in the US in the coming weeks. And that’s only teams from England. In addition to Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid is also playing MLS opposition. And then there are the clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Olympiakos participating in the Guinness International Champions Cup tournament, which includes Inter Milan vs. Roma at the Linc on Aug. 2. Whether or not MLS is directly involved, everybody wants to cash in on a World Cup bump and soccer’s growing popularity, and there are plenty of willing facilitators.

Will fans expecting the quality they see in Premier League games on NBCSN, or in Champions League games on Fox, receive the quality of play that they paid for from European teams that are in their preseason?

World Cup break means heavy fixture load for MLS sides

Lastly, MLS took a break during the latter half of June. Teams continued to play US Open Cup fixtures, but league fixtures will have to be made up with midweek games.

The pressure on players to perform in sweltering conditions is tough enough. But when you schedule a whole host of unnecessary matches, often at midweek, and what do you get?

Injuries would be the primary concern, but there’s also the prospects of the soccer quality going downhill. Players are spent, and reserves might be called upon more frequently. The Union match against the Fire on Saturday seemed to be an example of a team fighting through the grind of a packed fixture load in the dead of summer.

Something will probably give, whether it’s player’s health or the health of the product on the field.

Just get them over

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for this to all be over. As much as it’s great to hear about the Rose Bowl packed with 60,000 people to see Manchester United face the Galaxy (and all the other milestones that are reached in the process), I’m about the competition. There is no barometer in these fixtures, because the variables are too many to consider.

But the money is there, and MLS teams are going to relent in order to help balance the books. It’s inevitable, and it’s a midseason inconvenience that we will likely encounter as long as Don Garber is successful in fending off the fall-to-spring schedule.

14 Comments

  1. Definitely get what you’re saying, but I love soccer, so I can’t complain. My only conflict is about which players should see the pitch. Friendlies are a great opportunity for fringe and young players to see some minutes, but the fans of course want to see the stars. I think first half with first teams, and second half with a sub-bonanza is just about right.
    .
    As far as competition goes, I think the changes made to the Guiness International Champions Cup are turning it into a bit of a real competition now. Should be some fun games to watch.

  2. Formerseasonticketholder says:

    Good Article Earl, I used to go to these Friendly Fixtures often. But I finally figured out the Star players usually don’t play (if they do it’s not for very long). Like the time I got to see Tim Howard play for Everton at PPL park…oh wait that didn’t happen. I’m older now and have young children so most of decision come down to is it worth the money and IMO usually it’s not.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    Normal summer friendlies are a good idea. They give the reserves a chance to get game time which is necessary more than ever with the reserve league gone.
    .
    However, the all star game in a world cup year is a silly idea. The players most likely to play in an all star game are also the ones most likely to have played in a world cup, and they are the ones who need the time off. There is also very little time between the all star game and the next set of league games. Personally, I was disappointed that no one from Montreal made the team, given that they would have had to play late Wednesday night and then fly across the country to play Saturday. (Next year, lets get together a PSP initiative to vote in players from the team the Union play immediately after the all star game).
    .
    While clubs playing summer friendlies is a good idea since they can manage their own players, the league should take a page from the NHL during Winter Olympic years and cancel the all star game during world cup years.

  4. One upside, paticularly younger fans is the chance to see and interact with some of the big name stars. My sons have pictures with and autographs from Shay Givens, Darren Bent, Huntelaar, Draxler, Raul and the entire Everton (those that were there of course). Treasured items and memories. Beyond that however you were point on.

  5. When the Union get crappy teams like crystal palace, no one will go to that game anyway so why bother caring? The talent level of the friendlies the union get seem to get worse every year. What’s next, a friendly with a 6th league swedish team?

    • The Union get Crystal Palace because the Union are Crystal Palace. A bottom third side that has equal chance of being mid table or in a relegation fight. Unfortunately that is just the reality of the situation as long as the current ownership group is running the show.

    • Smoovinho says:

      I hear the Second Division in Gibraltar has some great talent.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Personally, I’ll enjoy watching the game Friday, but I’m really just hoping no one gets hurt… for either side. I understand the need for the friendly games, but they come with risks. (See Brek Shea last year at PPL)

  7. The Chopper says:

    I am sure we will have a full article and discussion on this later, but it is time to ditch the current All Star format. MLS is a very large league and the All Star game should be able,to accommodate as many of the league’ s top players as possible. If you want to pick a select team and challenge a top flight club or two, do it post season. The All Star weekend should celebrate the league, not Bayern Munich or any visiting club.

  8. I hate the all-star game, but I think the other midseason friendlies can be fun. And useful for MLS teams who can rest their starters and give their reserves a chance. And it’s a nice change of pace for the reserves who spend most games sitting in a chair.

    I went to the Union/Real Madrid game a few years back, and it was cool to Ronaldo play live. That was probably the only chance I’d ever have for that.

    It was interesting to hear Louis van Gaal’s comments about how he is not happy about the Man U preseason tour. It’s ok for MLS I think, but for Euro teams trying to prepare for the season it sucks with the travel and the jet lag. I understand Man U and Real Madrid going for the cash grab, but I don’t know why a team like Crystal Palace, who’s not going to fill even the little stadiums, bother with this at all.

  9. I know it will never happen, but in my dreams the MLS sets up a challenge cup with the EPL (in August before their season starts) that takes place over an entire weekend

    The teams you play are determined by where your team finished the year before vs final EPL standings (with promoted/demoted teams filling out the field to match up numbers now that MLS teams will be in the 20’s.)

    Trophy is presented to the league that did best. A % of gate is promised to the players, and MOTM monetary awards voted on by press for each game are given for some bonus funds

    I think this would be beneficial for both MLS and EPL.

    1) MLS fans have rooting interest in final EPL standings = increased EPL viewership
    2) MLS fans have exposure to variety of teams they otherwise wouldn’t see
    3) MLS players and lower level clubs get some extra funds

    I would also like to see something similar setup with Liga MX but have those setup so that half the games are in US and half in Mexico . . . I think that would take the Mexico US rivalry to a whole different level and bring Canada into it too. Not enough teams get into the CONCACAF Champions League to see these Mexican sides play as it stands.

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