Monday, September 7, 2015

Chp 15) MLS is Good Enough

Is it Un-American to watch other international leagues more than MLS, the professional league of the United States?  My opinion is yes.  I'm American and I'm going to support my local team first.  I'm going to follow MLS as much as possible over international leagues, regardless if the greater players play in those other leagues.

The foreign leagues have kept the most prominent soccer players in their prime years away from MLS.  The greatest players have only made their ways to MLS in their waning years.  It may not be like that for much longer or may continue on.  For sure, these worldly leagues have been able to stay on the radar of soccer fans in the U.S. by featuring goals from the most famous soccer athletes. 

It is unlikely for any one league to ever be able to have all the greatest players at one time.  All of the world's professional leagues are in competition with each other to gather the best possible players. So, regardless of how good the soccer in MLS can become, it appears that the other world leagues will always export some influence in America.

I've made the case for MLS.  In 2011, I wrote, 'MLS Good Enough to be More Popular than EPL in the U.S.'

MLS is good enough, talent-wise, to be more popular with sports fans in the U.S. than the English Premier League and other world leagues. 

Even though these other leagues may have superstar players and better overall play from top tier teams, sports fans should be able to have a deeper appreciation for MLS due to the history of outstanding relationships built by American sports teams.  

Sports teams in the U.S. have had a major cultural impact on American heritage.  The significance of the impact has been felt for generations by sports fans.  Sports teams have provided more than just entertainment to American families, communities and cities. Through a collective spirit and as a hobby to follow, sports teams have allowed Americans to connect and communicate for more than a century.

This week, the LA Galaxy gave Southern California one more championship to remember.  David Beckham and Landon Donovan built a powerhouse in 2011 and were able to close it out, at home.  They provided championship pedigree for fans in lieu of the absence of the NFL in their market and a looming lock-out in the NBA.

Currently, in regards to talent levels among team sports, MLS is most similar to college football and basketball in the U.S.  But, MLS has not garnered the support of sports fans in a similar fashion. Sports fans have embraced college football and college basketball for years.  The level of play is below the level of the NBA and NFL, but it hasn't mattered. 

Some would argue college football and basketball are different animals than their professional counterparts, but the casual sports fan would probably disagree.  They would admit to a difference in the view of the pageantry associated with the college game, but they wouldn't watch at all if the talent level wasn't there to back up that pageantry. 

Many Soccer fans in the U.S. insist on watching other world leagues in order to see how Soccer looks at the level of what is the equivalent to the NFL and NBA.  But, if MLS is at the college football and basketball level, shouldn't it be supported in the U.S. to that degree by sports fans?

MLS is missing some primary traits associated with college basketball and football, such as the student base of fans, both former and present.  But, there are the supporters groups in MLS, which resemble students and alumni groups in many ways.

If sports fans add the value of what it means to have American teams representing American cities with the fact that the level of play of MLS is as good as most teams in these other world leagues, than the answer seems obvious.  MLS should be thriving very soon in American culture with television ratings to prove it, big ones. 

MLS appears to have everything going for it in order to diffuse the pretentious nature of American sports fans who are supporting foreign clubs.  The new NBC contract will help broaden MLS' appeal. More MLS teams are needed, though, in order to recruit more sports fans.  If more teams and better TV contracts don't bring about the change necessary for MLS to have mainstream significance to sports fans, than maybe it is all about the lack of scoring in Soccer.

Here we are, years later, with more MLS teams and better TV contracts, but still the needle hasn't moved much on ratings.  And, it's possible MLS is the best league in the Western Hemisphere.  I wrote about this in 2011, 'Is MLS the Best League in the Americas?'

MLS is off to a huge start in CONCACAF Champions League, looking dominant in the process.  Mexico may have won the Gold Cup this year, but for the first time in a long time, the U.S. First Division may be a stronger league than Mexico's.  This is a big turning point for MLS.

With 5 teams playing well in CCL, more than likely, an MLS club will participate in FIFA Club World Cup for the first time in 2012.  At this 8-team tournament, there will be a chance to compete against the championship clubs from all different parts of the world, including South America.

Regardless of whether future accomplishments in FIFA CWC happen soon or not, goals are being made with 'major' strides this year.  There has been a noticeable difference this year of skilled play in MLS, including fantastic set plays and exciting goals.

Possibly, other leagues among CONCACAF are having down years, so MLS looks outstanding in comparison.  Or maybe the media has too often in the past, highlighted the strengths of foreign leagues to the detriment of MLS.

American media and foreign press have pressured MLS to produce higher quality play with each passing year.  There's nothing wrong with the principles of trying to make a better league and some of the recent accomplishments can be attributed to this constructive criticism.  But, the media can go so far out of their way to try and make a point, that they lose objectivity.  The opinions they put forth can skew towards a bias without solid proof.  The criticism can become unwarranted.

It has been a combination of both, some justified criticism and some unmitigated bias.  Unquestionably, MLS has improved its overall play in recent years and has gained a higher stature among world's soccer leagues.  But, how much better were all these other leagues in Europe, Asia and the Americas in the first place?

It always seems like just a few teams in each league play lights out, the greatness of these international leagues becomes embellished and exaggerated.  Is there or was there enough proof, to legitimately say from top to bottom, these leagues are better than MLS?

Generally speaking, Mexico has had solid teams from top to bottom for many years, but if MLS teams continue to beat Mexican teams in CCL play, than it is logical to state that MLS is the best soccer league of North and Central America.  Mexico is the only real threat to this throne.

In South America, there are solid leagues in several countries, but an argument could be made that MLS is ahead of all of them by a decent margin with the exception of Argentina and Brazil.  Leagues in Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay tend to have just one or two really good teams per league, if that many.  Their country's best players tend to play in leagues of other countries.

Only Brazil and Argentina can boast of having more than a couple good to great teams each year, like a Santos or Corinthians from Brazil or a Boca from Argentina.  Most of their greatest players also leave to play for leagues of other countries. 

It's a debate which can't have an indisputable answer and it's only recently that MLS enters seriously into the discussion.  

MLS never has had a team win the CONCACAF Champions League since the Champions League era began in 2008 (It was previously known as Champions Cup).  Only Mexican teams have won the title.  The debate will be living on for a while.

I've been frustrated with how MLS is perceived because there is plenty to cheer on about the league. Every season has brought outstanding scoring duos and fresh faces, or should I say, hairstyles.  I've done my share of fluff pieces on MLS to show the league is versatile.  In 2012, I took on both topics, 'Top Five Most Striking Hairstyles of MLS' and 'The Top Five Most Exciting Scoring Duos in MLS.'

Hair can really mean something to fans.  When the look is good, the player raises his level of 'coolness' and becomes much more well-known.  In fact, hair is such a big deal, it can mean a big difference in sponsorship dollars for players and better overall business for MLS.  More cooler looks for players means more advertising dollars for the league.

Of course, if the player sucks, cool hair won't matter all that much.  But, if the player is solid and a producer, watch out, him and his hair may be ready to go bigtime.  Some guys have better luck with hair than others.  The bald look can be a winner if it suits the player's position and image.

For some players, they are willing to go the surgical route to maintain the look they want.  In England, Wayne Rooney of Manchester United thought it was important enough to get a hair transplant for his looks and his confidence.  His play got better after his new hairdo started to grow in thicker.

There are honorable mentions in the best hairstyle category:

Give credit to Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake and Shalrie Joseph of Chivas USA for unforgettable looks.  Their hairstyles with reggae braids and maybe extensions for Joseph may not be the most appealing to many fans, but they stand out in the crowd of MLS players.  Their hair makes for more cushion for headers, but possibly holds them back as athletes because it looks like it weighs a ton.

Steven Lenhart of the San Jose Earthquakes is noticeable on the field with his blonde locks and natural curls.  It definitely allows him to be just a little more famous.

Brek Shea of FC Dallas and Robbie Keane of the LA Galaxy know a good look is important for a goal-scorer.  In the past, both have taken to the almost Mohawk style with a close cut to the sides.  Shea, who would have been best 2011 hairstyle of MLS, has been a letdown this season and knows it, so he might not be emphasizing a cool look now.  He probably wants to go under the radar.

Dwayne De Rosario of DC United has been able to match a really cool combo hairstyle and beard. He has kept his look contemporary from season to season.  He stands out and deserves credit for playing at a high level and looking dapper.  Dwayne could have been number 5, but reports have him out for the season with a knee injury.

5) Freddy Montero of the Seattle Sounders has the classic forward look with his hair band to hold his locks back.  He makes it look cool, but may need a trim to get it just right.

4) Aurelien Collin, a French defenseman of Sporting KC, makes the bald look beautiful.  It fits him, his personality and his team's needs.

3) David Beckham of the Galaxy is the trendsetter of all trendsetters.  He knows his fashion.  He's good at fitting his hair for a different style each season.  He has the classic model's hair.

2) Kei Kamara of Sierra Leone and Sporting KC makes his look cool by spiking his hair with natural twist braids and giving it a fro-like look.  He has a big smile when he plays and he brings joy to the field with his style.

1) Graham Zusi of Sporting KC and the US Men's National Team has the very best Soccer hair in MLS right now.  He is matching his ability on the field with his hair.  He's a gamer and knows it.  He brings his hair back with a band in the forehead.  He looks cool when he sweats and his hair is the right length.

These type of articles could be written any year to promote the league.

There's nothing quite like the chemistry of two strikers making music together by playing off of each other's strengths or setting each other up.  Sometimes, one guy is the emotional header and the other is the acrobatic juggler or one guy is the stronger dribbler while the other has a quick boot.

In Soccer, a strong scoring duo makes all the difference for fans and for a winning record.  Scoring duos don't come around often, so it's important to appreciate the good ones.  In MLS, three of the best come from the Western Conference and two others from the Eastern Conference.

At number V is Sporting KC's C.J. Sapong and Kei Kamara (14 goals, 5 assists).  They are two tall, sometimes awkward-style forwards, but, their athleticism can be a lot of fun to watch.  Kamara is a mid-leader on the scoring table, Sapong is further down.  Only a couple of times this year have they really turned it on, but this duo can deliver and has dynamic potential.  The bottom line is that they are fun to watch.  Other players on Sporting are giving them a lot of shots on goal and playing beautifully.  Their best feeders are Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza.  Aurelien Collin's aggression on defense keeps the ball going the other way towards Sapong, Kamara and Teal Bunbury.

At number IV is a New York surprise (25 goals, 9 assists).  Thierry Henry is not the surprise this year; it is his new partner in crime of the Red Bulls, Kenny 'the header' Cooper.  Cooper has provided more goals this season than what was predicted.  He's an older player with not a lot of tremendous speed; he is quirky and herky jerky.  But, he's also at the right spot at the right time a lot of the time.  Henry still has flair and knows his target well.  He's the French chef of scoring.  He still has quickness on the ball.  His best asset for scoring is making the most out of a touch on the ball, something that takes a lot of skill to learn for even the best players.  One extra touch and a player loses the opportunity, much of the time.

Number III is for the underdogs of San Jose (26 goals, 6 assists).  Steven Lenhart and Chris Wondolowski of the Earthquakes have done it all season for each other.  Not enough can be said about Wondolowski's rise up the scoring ladder.  He is the leader of goals scored for MLS and he has made it onto the U.S. National Men's Team.  There's no other way to put it, other than, he has become a finisher, one of the hardest things to accomplish in the sport.  Lenhart is always a threat and seems to get a goal for when they count most, to win or equalize.  Also, Lenhart can be very artistic and powerful with his goals.  He's made a name for himself in MLS, as well.

At number II (22 goals, 7 assists), Seattle's Eddie Johnson and Freddie Montero can light it up in a sport not known for high-scoring.  They are both on the ball and dangerous almost every time with it.  They both stop, start, twist, fake and blast often.  The Sounders and their fans are enjoying the ride and the flair.  Every game with Johnson and Montero in it together, the opposing teams must mark them solid or else be prepared to be playing for a tie and not a win.

Number I can only be Landon 'the Legend' Donovan and his compañero Robbie Keane (20 goals, 17 assists). Keane has been a perfect compliment to Donovan and a great receiver of Beckham's, just as Donovan is, as well.  These guys break the defenses down.  They are fast and ready to shoot.  They always seem to be in a good spot and know strategy for setting up the pass before the assist.  Keane and Donovan are ahead of the field because they are savvy veterans with strong legs.

I can envision a time when MLS has the largest portion of the greatest soccer athletes in the world playing in their prime years for the league.  I maintain, though, the greatest players in their prime years still won't make the dent needed with the casual American public until there are scoring rules changes.  The simple fact that all these international leagues are hefty competition to MLS should be part of the impetus for the league to try and distinguish itself and become a league that casual American sports fans would prefer to watch.

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