MLS XI vs Real MadridThis has been a busy summer for soccer fans in America. European giants Real Madrid, AC Milan and Chelsea along with English side Fulham all played pre-season friendlies (exhibitions) here in the states. And while the two matches between Milan and Chelsea were dreadful affairs (for which people gladly paid top dollar in the expectation of quality soccer), the four contests against Major League Soccer (MLS) opposition were all good entertainment. Real Madrid clearly outclassed Los Angeles Galaxy. And while excellent goalkeeping kept the score downt to 2-0, LA certainly did not embarass themselves. Chicago thoroughly outplayed Milan for most of their match but were made to pay for lamentable finishing and ended up unjustly losing 3-1. Champions DC United also played some good soccer against Chelsea, before falling 2-1. The MLS all-star team stomped Fulham 4-1. Though Fulham were in their pre-season, the MLS side had only one practice together but looked pretty cohesive considering.
This was in addition to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the continental championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean. Though with a largely makeshift lineup and many injuries, the United States won its third Gold Cup (in eight editions) by beating Panama in the final in a penalty shootout.
Today should provide a more interesting test. Another MLS Select XI will be playing a friendly against Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. It should be interesting. While the American outfit will be sending a league all-star team, it could be argued that Real Madrid will field a virtual world all-star team. With players like Zinedine Zidane (the best player of his generation), Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo and Iker Casillas, it should be a much better test for the MLS players than an English side that will fight to avoid relegation this season.
Some naysayers will automatically dismiss such exhibitions. They won't give MLS players any credit, regardless of result. If MLS wins, it will be a 'meaningless exhibition' against a team not in midseason form. If MLS loses, then the result 'proves' how inferior the league really is.
I think these exhibitions are important. They are far more compelling entertainment than the horribly contrived 'east vs west' format MLS has used for most of its all-star games. It's no coincidence that the two best MLS all-star games in terms of being a great spectacle were the two that deviated from the contrived east-west format.
The only reason to watch a game is if you care about the outcome in some small way. No one cares about east-west. But if the reputation of the league could be enhanced, then fans of the league will have a reason to care.
Contrary to international perception, the American soccer community appreciates good soccer. In fact, that's precisely the problem faced by MLS in marketing itself. While pre-season exhibition snooze fests between Milan and Chelsea will draw 60,000 fans, the domestic league averages about 15,000 per game. The American soccer community is divided largely between three camps. 1) the camp that like MLS AND European soccer, 2) the camp that likes European soccer but looks its nose down at MLS and 3) the camp that's too busy playing to watch games on TV. The 2nd and 3rd camps are significantly larger than the 1st. But MLS-European friendlies are a good way for the league to try to make inroads into the Eurosnob crowd. To show that while the league may not be one of the top three or four in the world (after all, it's only 10 years old), it still provides decent entertainment.
An MLS win against Real Madrid will not prove that the league is better than the Spanish La Liga, just as a Chicago win against Milan wouldn't have made MLS leapfrog above the Italian Serie A in international reputation. But these games, no matter how 'friendly,' are a good way for MLS and its clubs to challenge themselves against higher opposition. They should schedule such contests every year.