Funny how the buzz over the Kansas City Wizards beating Manchester United can be killed so quickly.
The Los Angeles Galaxy, several bajillion points ahead of the Wizards in the MLS table, played a more meaningful game last night in the CONCACAF Champions League against the Puerto Rico Islanders.
This is a tournament that hasn’t been kind to MLS teams over the past decade. The competition actually went better for MLS in the old days, with the Galaxy reaching the 1997 finals (MLS’ second year) and D.C. United winning it in 1998. Then the Galaxy won it in 2000. Since then, no MLS teams have reached the finals. Since moving to a “League” format rather than a simple eight-team Cup, the carnage has been worse.
It’s not just a case of losing to the better-established and better-financed Mexican league. Puerto Rico knocked out Toronto last year. Trinidad and Tobago’s W Connection FC knocked out New York, one year after countrymates Joe Public routed New England on 6-1 aggregate. Houston failed to advance from its group last year, finishing behind Panama’s Arabe Unido.
Granted, the tournament as a whole has some strange results. Puerto Rico, which plays in the USA’s second tier but qualifies through the Caribbean club championship, makes this competition its highest priority and reached the 2009 semifinals before losing on penalty kicks to Mexico’s Cruz Azul. Mexican teams often look disinterested, particularly if those teams are also involved in the more prestigious Copa Libertadores.
But the top team in MLS losing 4-1 at home to a team featuring a couple of players waived from MLS clubs?
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena put it succinctly: “Their effort was excellent and ours wasn’t good enough.”
From what I saw yesterday, Landon Donovan was at least putting in the effort. But Puerto Rico clearly brings a bit more motivation.
It’s not talent. Players from clubs that pull CONCACAF upsets sometimes sign with MLS, and they rarely have an impact. Perhaps the reserves that play in these games can’t cut it, which raises questions about the players MLS is signing for the 12th-20th spots on the rosters.
Whether it’s extra motivation or a deeper bench, MLS has to address this problem. The league knows full well that it’s battling to capture the fan base in the wake of the World Cup, the quadrennial revival tent for soccer fans. Beating Manchester United is nice, but these games are mere tune-ups for the English visitors. The real report card for the league’s quality of play is in meaningful games.
The saving grace for MLS is that no one’s paying attention other than us soccer nerds. The crowd in Kansas City was nearly 10 times the crowd in Los Angeles last night. But the league can’t rely on obscurity forever.