May 9, 2012

The Summer Friendlies Are Upon Us

Just as one can judge the coming of summer in my home state by the preparation and opening of public swimming pools (the outdoor variety).  Just as one can see the approach of summer by the antsy antics of school kids ready for the end of the year.  Just as you can see the coming of summer by the opening of blockbuster movies (Avengers anyone?).  Soccer fans in America can see the coming of summer by the announcement of the summer friendlies.

Some "football" fans may hate the summer friendlies, calling them a waste of time.  There is the wringing of hands, the moaning about the purpose, etc.  Some people might wonder what's the point.  But not me:  I absolutely love summer friendlies.

Okay, to be cynical, we all know that to a certain extent a summer friendly is a cash grab, both for the MLS and for the European club.  And you know what?  I am fine with that.  After all, soccer, both here and in Europe is a sporting business.  The point is to attempt to make some money.  If the visiting club can finance their tour of the U.S. with the friendlies, excellent.  If they can make a little profit, all the better.  For MLS, the infusion of cash from the gates, etc. is always a good thing.  If everyone is making money and the fans see a good product--then that is the best thing around for everyone.

But here is the thing--It is LIVE Soccer!!!!  There is nothing better than live soccer.  Go out and see it.  Maybe one day I can finance a late fall or early spring (preferably spring) trip to Europe and see games in England, German, Italy, Spain, and other places.  But that takes some serious money, some serious planning and a considerate employer to do that.  But seriously, how often are American fans going to have a chance to see Chelsea, or Manchester United, or Juventus, or AC Milan, or Schalke 04, or Real Madrid, or Boca Juniors or any other foreign club LIVE and in person.  I don't mind spending $50, $60, $80 a ticket for a game to see a club near my house that I may never see again in person.  I can travel to Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Charlotte, or half a dozen other major cities in a day, see a game, maybe stay overnight in a less than glamorous motel and spend less than $300 on my trip for two tickets, gas, food and lodging.  I can do that a couple of times in a summer.  So I could see three or four world class teams, live and in person for less than $1,000.  It would be worth every penny.

MLS (although in mid-season) gets to play high quality games for some period of time against quality opponents (who are in pre-season).  Yes, often times both clubs end up putting a lot of reserves on the field--but that is okay also.  It is a friendly--it is supposed to be an opportunity for both clubs to try new players.  I don't think either club, MLS or European side, should feel obligated to defend their personnel choices.  The fact is if we see reserves from both sides, we get to see how well that MLS reserves stack up against world club reserves.  That in itself is a measure of how far (or not) MLS has progressed in finding and developing talent.  So stop worrying about it.  Embrace the youth, embrace the mistakes, enjoy the good play and enjoy the bad play.  It is a game people--it is supposed to be fun.

Yes, there is, of course, a chance to compare MLS talent against world talent.  The thing to remember is that MLS is not even 20 years old yet.  But each year, the gulf in quality between the MLS and the top flight leagues in Europe grows smaller.  It may be imperceptible to the untrained eye, it may be imperceptible to the trained eye, but it is shrinking.  I can envision a day coming soon, when an MLS first team and compete against and regularly defeat a top European side.  Will it happen next year?  No.  Next decade?  Probably not, but it will happen.

So I suggest we stop apologizing for summer friendlies, we should stop worrying about who plays and whether they are first teamers or not.  Honestly, I should think MLS should accommodate the summer friendlies that happen by maybe front loading a few games early in the season, back loading a bit in August/September and giving clubs the freedom to schedule between 1 and 3 friendlies during June and July and allow MLS to perhaps select a game or two.  Get the fans involved.  I would love to see a fan vote on who a club would play from a list of three or four teams (keeping in mind that not everyone is going to be able to play Real Madrid, Manchester United or Bayern Munich).  But if fans vote on a team and that team can do it, then you are likely to get a good crowd.

In the meantime, go out, enjoy the friendly game, maybe get a few autographs and some pictures.  As you say, it may be the memory of a lifetime and who knows.  You might just see some magic.  At the very least, you will get to see some live soccer and in the end, isn't that what a friendly is all about--a chance to see the beautiful game?

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