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Perez: Summer soccer exhibitions show that the MLS remains a work in progress

With the World Cup officially behind us for the next four years, the attention of soccer fans has turned to the start of the pre-season for club soccer. In particular, several European sides, including Manchester United, Manchester City and other EPL squads, have staged exhibition matches in the United States with MLS teams as part of U.S. tours.

When thinking about these summer friendlies that occur annually between MLS teams and UEFA club teams, one realizes how interesting of a dynamic is at play with these matches. More specifically, while the MLS has been in full swing with its season since early March, many UEFA teams are just now playing as a single unit for the first time. Nevertheless, the friendlies so far have been markedly one-sided in favor of the European teams.

In trying to explain the reasons for this phenomenon, we must look back at the history of soccer on both continents. It is obvious that the European teams have been on the pitch for a much longer time when compared to current MLS teams. Competitive soccer in Europe launched in 1863 with the founding of the Football Association in London, England. The first league to kick off was the Football League in 1888, which consisted of 12 club teams from London and Manchester. Soon after, more football leagues were formed England before professional football spread to the rest of Europe, as both the Italian Serie A and the Spanish La Liga were both launched in 1929.

In contrast, in the United States, soccer only started gaining in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, it took another 25 years for the game to grow even more with the staging of the World Cup on American soil in 1994. After that Cup, the United States did not even launch its own professional soccer league, the MLS, until 1996, showing just how new and inexperienced American club squads are when compared to teams from the rest of the world.

However, as this 2014 World Cup shows, it is clear that soccer is making strides in becoming one of nation’s more popular sports; Americans bought more tickets for the World Cup than fans from any other country in the world, excluding the host Brazilians. As soccer continues to slowly grow in America, there are some crucial elements that need to be identified as contributors to the emergence of the sport in the U.S.

In particular, the MLS makes brilliant use of the Designated Player Rule, also known as the Beckham Rule. MLS teams use the rule to compete on the international market for world-class players, as it was used by the Los Angeles Galaxy to acquire David Beckham in 2007. As part of Beckham’s multi-million-dollar contract, $6,500,000 would be paid directly by the MLS and the rest would come from the boost in jersey sales and other income sources from the club. The rule allows for MLS teams to offer players a much higher salary than their other MLS players. Using this rule, the MLS has recently landed top players, such as New York FC’s signing of former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, as well as the transfer of former AC Milan midfielder Kaka to Orlando City SC.

Bringing the conversation back to the summer friendlies between MLS teams and UEFA club teams, let’s look at some cases where the disparity in skills and experience were particularly prevalent on the pitch. On July 23, Louis Van Gal debuted as Manchester United’s new manager in a friendly against the LA Galaxy. Van Gal enjoyed a dream start in his debut, as his side swept past the Galaxy in a 7-0 rout.

The general lack of experience among MLS sides showed on Manchester United’s first three goals, which were the byproduct of careless mistakes made by LA Galaxy defenders. On the first goal, Danny Welbeck was the beneficiary of Juan Mata’s interception of a poor Galaxy pass; Welbeck would find the bottom right corner of the net with a shot outside of the eighteen in the 13th minute. Twenty-nine minutes later, Antonio Valencia took the ball down the right flank and attempted to cross the ball into the box, only to have the ball deflect off the hands of A. J. DeLaGarza, giving Manchester United a penalty in the 42nd minute. From there, it was an academic finish for Wayne Rooney on Jaime Penedo’s left-hand side of the goal.

A couple of minutes later, Antonio Valencia again received the ball on the flank and sent a cross that remarkably went through the legs of Tommy Meyer and onto to the foot of an unmarked Rooney; despite failing to chip the ball past Penedo, Rooney was there for an easy tap-in. Subsequently, Ashley Young came to wreak even more havoc on the Galaxy, as he assisted on two goals for Reese James before getting a brace in the last two minutes. In addition to the final scoreline, the number of red shirts in support of United significantly outnumbered the number of Galaxy supporters in the Rose Bowl, showing just how far the MLS needs to go in catching up with Europe.

Of the MLS teams that have challenged European squads this summer, the New York Red Bulls are the only MLS team to have overcome an EPL side. Thanks to Bradley Wright-Phillips, the Red Bulls eased past my beloved Arsenal in a 1-0 victory. However, before the match in an interview with the New York Post, Arsenal legend and current NY Red Bull forward Thierry Henry said, “I think hopefully the stadium will be full,” Henry told the New York Post. “Not having a go [at the fans], but that would be a first. So hopefully everybody can come and support us, too, not only Arsenal,” acknowledging the MLS’ inferiority when compared to European soccer leagues.

In closing, MLS teams really wasted a precious opportunity this summer as they faced off against some of the best teams in the world. As a league, the MLS was gifted a chance to grow the game immensely with the play of its teams against the elite clubs of Europe after the USA’s impressive performance in the World Cup. Instead, MLS squads have largely floundered in these summer exhibitions. While the growth of the USMNT has had a tremendous impact on the popularity of soccer in the States, at some point, the hopes of American soccer will depend on the progress of the MLS in becoming a top-flight league on the world soccer stage.