Disclaimer: By no means do I claim to be ever-enlightened about the inner-workings and how to run Major League Soccer.
I love the Wizards. And, I love Manchester United. As I shared last week, United are the club that first interested me in the sport of soccer. For them, a club of that size and name recognition, to come to my city - where I have lived my entire life - was nothing short of a big deal. The biggest of deals in Kansas City soccer history. The record crowd of 52,424 was something many Wizards fans from even just five years ago would have never thought possible.
Lost in all the build-up and the hype, though, is the fundamental lack of point of playing such a game. And, that's what leaves me wondering if MLS as whole is doing the best thing for itself in the here-and-now by stopping so much league play for nothing more than a glorified scrimmage to warm up the larger European clubs for their upcoming seasons. Don't get me wrong; Sunday's game and 2-1 victory over United was extremely fun to be a part of and to experience. Where the "was it worth it?" question comes into play for myself is when thinking about what the goal of a team and league is, and how this game could potentially affect that goal.
The goal of a team, by definition, is to put forth the most competitive squad of players possible to win their respective league. The goal of a league, by definition, is to determine the best team within the league and crown a champion.
Did Sunday's friendly with United lend any assistance to either of these goals? The goal of the team, perhaps, because you can only improve by playing better competition. I can see that argument, and surely fo along with it. The goal of the league, though, is completely thrown out the window when accepting and playing a game like this.
Granted, when this game was agreed upon back in May of this year, it wasn't known at all that the Wizards would struggle as mightily as they did through much of the season, yet suddenly regain form in the two league games leading up to the United friendly. I didn't know that, you didn't know that, the team didn't know that. But, the fact of the matter is that it did happen, and while the ultimate goal of this team in 2010 is to compete for an MLS Cup, the Wizards would have been better served with an extremely high-level performance, like Sunday's, coming against Chicago in league play - the originally scheduled game for Saturday night.
A 2-1 result and three points against an MLS side, who also happen to be in the middle of the playoff chase, would have been a far more tangibly helpful result. The league victory and three points are something that we could have seen and felt. The friendly victory offers no points and only an opportunity at a gimmick grab for new soocer and/or MLS fans. The fact of the situation is that, at present moment, our dearly beloved Wiz sit 12th in the league table, but do so only a mere 7 points behind the final playoff spot. Now, I'm not saying they make it this year. After the horrid start, it would be nearly unthinkable. But, if you take that kind of performance and result from Sunday and it's a league game, those 3 points go a long way; especially against Chicago, the team directly ahead of us in the table.
More playing means more potential injuries, right? Injuries are a tired excuse for any professional athlete, coach or fan to use in a debate like this, but the fact remains that injuries do exist. Example: Wizards winger Ryan Smith has had a bum ankle since the first game of the season. Smith was found on Sunday rolling on the ground after having said ankle banged up, once again, on a challenge from United right back Rafael da Silva. Arguably, Smith is the single most important player on this year's squad. No other player on the team, and very few in all of MLS, offer the comination of creativity, speed and danger creating ability of Smith. The Wizards have scored 14 league goals on the season. Smith has officially assisted on six of them, while scoring one himself. If his injury Sunday is a torn ligament in his ankle, or even a severely sparined one that causes him to miss the next month, say goodbye to any minutae hopes this team had of catching the playoffs. Forward Kei Kamara was also the recipient of harsh contact that left him on the ground momentarily, for the record.
Lastly, as a whole, this is just not quite the message I believe MLS wants to be sending to the masses. The message that they have to rely upon these European clubs to garner interest in the sport and their league in America. I realize that with the seasons playing in one another's offseason, it would be nearly impossible to schedule any sort of competition between the two worlds. You can guaran-damn-tee that these big European clubs aren't stopping English Premier League or Bundesliga play and rescheduling league fixtures to play an American team in a friendly on their preseason European tour. I also realize that with the money of these clubs, comes the power to choose. However, taking this "shot in the pan" kind of risk on a single game is not, in my mind, the way to grow MLS in America. Nor is it MLS's job to grow soccer in America. A great domestic league will lend itself to the US national team, but the goal, as stated, is to crown a league champion. Period.
I will leave you with this thought here - Kansas City Wizards supporters' scarves list the years and competitions of trophies won by their club - 2000 Supporters' Shield, 2000 MLS Cup and 2004 US Open Cup. Will the scarf for 2011 include "2010 - Manchester United Friendly Victory"? It seems highly doubtful, but if so, it will be a sad, sad day for not only the Wizards, but MLS as a whole that the league, teams and fans now take more pride in these glorified exhibitions than playing for trophies. Check the Twitter hashtag #TrophiesNotFriendlies if you don't believe me.