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Major League Monday

March 28, 2011

SOCCER-MLS/

THE NEW AMERICAN HOPE?

MLS’s odd policy of playing through FIFA international dates meant that the league action was overshadowed by the big friendly in New Jersey, where nearly 80,000 fans watched Bob Bradley’s U.S. team battle to a 1-1 draw against a Lionel Messi inspired Argentina. The U.S team is dominated by players based in Europe but there was a big bright point for MLS when New York Red Bulls teenage striker Juan Agudelo came off the bench to score. Agudelo, who scored on his international debut against South Africa last year and bagged on the opening day of the MLS season last week, is the hottest young talent in MLS and has huge potential. For his sake though, it is hoped that he doesn’t have to endure the premature hype that surrounded the last great American hope in soccer – Freddy Adu. Adu was treated as the American Pele as a teenager but having failed to live up to such ludicrous expectations he has stumbled around Europe and at the age of 21 he has already slumped to the obscurity of the Turkish second division.  Agudelo would be well served by a couple of years gaining experience in MLS before he starts thinking about a big move abroad.

One of the interesting things about Agudelo is that he hasn’t come through the old-fashioned college system in the U.S. Born in Colombia, he moved to the States with his family as an eight year old and came through the Red Bulls academy. That surely is the future for soccer in North America – players who come through the college system might get a good all-round education but if they want to be an internationally marketable talent when they are at the key age of 20-21, they need to be playing professional soccer in their teens. The likes of Messi and Wayne Rooney wouldn’t be where they are now if they had been studying social sciences at 21 and playing three or four months out of the year.

GALAXY SIMPLY OUTCLASSED

David Beckham had the captain’s armband back on for L.A Galaxy for the first time in three years on Saturday but endured a miserable night as last year’s regular season champions were utterly outclassed by a sparkling Real Salt Lake. Beckham had a deflected free-kick hit the post but was badly at fault for Real’s third goal when he was caught dozing at a throw in and Javier Morales zipped away from him and blasted home a superb shot from 20 yards out to put the game beyond the Galaxy four minutes before the break.

The only bright spot for Beckham and Galaxy was a late consolation goal when Beckham whipped in a trademark cross which Colombian Juan Pablo Angel bungled home – but even that glimpse of the old Beckham was only made possible by some shambolic goalkeeping. Nonetheless, after a week where Beckham’s commitment to Galaxy was questioned in some quarters, the very fact that coach Bruce Arena entrusted him with the captaincy said something about that debate.  For the Galaxy, even though they were without Landon Donovan, on international duty with the U.S, the game was a real wake up call. Salt Lake were sharper and more intelligent and creative in every area of the field than the rather laborious L.A team.

In many ways the game was a clash of two styles – the Galaxy’s approach can be pretty ponderous at times but they had the quality last year to get results. Salt Lake in contrast play a modern, fast-moving possession style, which reflects the heavily central and southern American make-up of their squad. It was simply no contest.

“Basically every player on the field for us in the first half was outplayed by a player wearing a Real Salt Lake shirt,” coach Bruce Arena said. “When that happens, you’re not going to win any games.

The Galaxy take on another form team at the weekend when they host the Philadelphia Union. “The team morale is good,” Beckham said. “We have to forget this game now… We’re gonna have our fans behind us and come up against another tough team”.

BACK TO REALITY

The successful opening day to the season, particularly the party in Vancouver to celebrate the return of the Whitecaps, prompted some excited speculation that MLS could be about to overtake the NHL and become ‘the fourth major league’ behind NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.  MLS’s biggest problem is getting television audiences in markets where the league isn’t present and that is reflected in very modest ratings for domestic games on Fox Soccer Channel where last year the average audience for MLS regular season games was between 50 and 60,000. But even when it comes to getting crowds into games there is still a long way to go for MLS. Salt Lake sold out their 21,000 Rio Tinto stadium for the Galaxy game and the Seattle Sounders, playing on Friday, drew 36,000 for the visit of Houston. But there were some very mediocre crowds elsewhere — 10,000 in Columbus, 11,000 in Dallas and most worryingly just  12,000 in both New England and Chicago. It didn’t help that soccer fans in those cities had the option of staying at home or heading to the bar to watch the best Americans play Argentina, but the figures are a reality check for those hyping up MLS.

And finally, this week’s video highlights:

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PICTURE: A shirtless Toronto FC fan cheers in below zero Celsius weather during the second half of their MLS soccer match against Portland Timbers in Toronto March 26, 2011.
REUTERS/ Mike Cassese

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