Monday, September 7, 2015

Too Many Broken MLS Games

The game last night between Columbus Crew SC and FC Dallas was the type of MLS game I've found myself calling broken. The Columbus match was a bit unusual in that it had so many player absences due to international matches that they had to use an ellipsis in the game preview, but it's not unusual in terms of being disrupted by events outside the league.

For most of the MLS season, looking at the league table is like looking at one of those funhouse mirrors. Teams a month off as far as games played, unbalanced scheduling and teams with negative goal differences near the top of the table. The league PR folks like to call it "parity" driven by league mechanisms like the salary cap, awarding allocation to teams finishing poorly and the college draft. But that's not actually what drives parity in MLS. It's more the fact that the season is made up of a large collection of broken games.

Let's run down the list of things that have great impact on MLS games:

1. Summer Cups (Gold, World, Copa America)
2. International Friendlies
3. Summer team friendlies vs foreign clubs
4. Turf (5 of 20 stadiums)
5. Special CCL scheduling (every year)
6. Unplayable summer temperatures (Texas, Florida, Southern Cal)

There are many other factors that can "break" a game in any league or sport. Injuries (ask a Blue Jackets fan) or poor weather can mess with any league in the world. Those are natural events, however. MLS works differently in that almost all of it is self-inflicted (un-natural) and it happens more frequently than any other league I know of. Count for yourself next time you are watching some MLS games. It's easy. Just ask... "Is this game broken."

I actually don't think any of the items on my list are out of necessity. So let's go down each one so I can explain myself.

1. Summer Cups
If there isn't a tournament, there is qualifying for one. It happens every year and they are scheduled years in advance. The only way to avoid the actual tournament is to adjust as much as possible to the FIFA calendar or get creative with split, opening / closing seasons (like much of this hemisphere).

2. International Friendlies
This is same as number one only in non-meaningful form. Again, these are scheduled far in advance. If US Soccer doesn't want to break MLS for them, then they can 1) not schedule a game or 2) Only field players from other leagues.

3. MLS Team vs. Foreign Club
These games have been going on for a while. "Foreign Team" looking to play some preseason games here in the US to get ready for their seasons. It's usually a fairly minor disruption but in recent years we've seen the rise of things like the International Champions Cup where there are multiple games played by some of the MLS teams. Maybe it's not your favorite team but your team is likely taking on one that is participating. Meaning: Broken.

4. Turf (the fake kind)
Polytan LigaTurf RS+CoolPlus World Cup Edition 260 W ACS 90 Bionic Fibre Infill, FieldTurf Revolution, AstroTurf GameDay Grass 3D and plain old Field Turf are the names of current playing surface names in MLS. Two of the surfaces belong to a couple of the most well-attended teams in the league. While I'm sure it nice to be there, it's unfortunate that the play on TV a lot. I think of it as a home with nice tapestries but a concrete floor. The game loses its familiar feel. Misjudged bounces, balls out run guys, no slide tackling, star players skip the games and almost all players hate the day after because of soreness (or pellet injury). More often than not, it makes for a broken match.

5. CONCACAF Champions League, Preferred Scheduling
MLS is not above moving heaven and earth to free up the schedule for teams advancing in recent CCL tournaments. Last year it was the Seattle Sounders and this year it was Montreal Impact. The result is not only a bunched up schedule for the teams in the tournament, it also means it jacks up opponents as well. It's a flat out mistake to change the MLS regular season schedule. It falls into the nebulous logic that pundits use about rest and form as well as tell the world how meaningless your competition is. Respect your season and others will too. With less than 2 months to go in the season, Montreal is still 4 games back from most of the league.

6. Hot Temperatures
Saving this one for last because it is the trickiest, yet still the worst part - games during MLS summers. Cities like Houston, Dallas and Orlando are inhospitable during summer months (and nearly as hot as Doha, Qatar - fyi) and you also get some scorchers in LA, Columbus, and all up the East Coast. Outside of long-time watchers of the sport getting frustrated at the pace of hot games (including the water breaks) vs. cold ones, anyone that has played an outdoor sport will tell you whether too hot or too cold games are preferable. Of course with cold, just like hot, you have fans showing up to worry about - but MLS has to do everything it can to improve the level of play for those watching on TV. Hot games suck. Each league has them, it's just that MLS has so many of them. 

The MLS budget / salary cap (which is good so long everyone plays by the same rules) only exacerbates the items I've listed above as teams are not able to go two-deep at any more than a couple positions.

I was in the RFK stands during DC United's first few seasons of dominance. The volume of quality players the league is bringing in has grown, but so has the league - and, it must be said, so has the rest of the world. MLS is a league of change. Good and bad. One consistent is that the quality of soccer has always been hit and miss in MLS, even on the best teams, because of (but not limited to) the issues listed above.

This year we have a good team to watch here in Columbus but, as we saw last night, it can be undermined by preventable issues. It's unfortunate, especially for the relatively large crowd and those watching nationwide, but it has helped bring some of this to light. The league has the power to fix most of these issues. They always have. The only question is - will they?

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