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MLS Live Blog

March 15, 2014

Just for funsies I thought I’d catch the first half of the Toronto FC – Seattle Sounders clash this afternoon. I’ve never really watched an MLS game, aside from a few snippets here and there while channel surfing. 

I like the idea of the MLS because it’s fun to have been around for a league that has grown along with me. I was 7 for World Cup ‘94, which was a really fun age to become aware of soccer. At 7 I was just starting to realize the world exists, and that one of the things in the world was soccer. I remember Dad taking us to a Brazil open practice. I feel like I got close to Ronaldo, but maybe it was a 3rd string Ronaldo that everyone has forgotten about. 

MLS has been a success in the last 19 years. It’s certainly here to stay. People in England talk about it like it’s a real league. That’s all new, something I feel like has only existed in the last five years or less. Franchises now have some history and the league has enough fan involvement to add some of the requisite local flavor that any good soccer league needs. I definitely feel like MLS has gone through some serious evolutions, and I think this is a huge year for them. If the USMNT team gets out of the group stage, the MLS might actually be able to leverage itself into something that is more than an immediately dismissed joke in American popular culture.

Still, the first thing the announcer says is that this game may be the most “anticipated regular season game in the entire history of the MLS.” There’s still some growing to do. 

But whatever. I’m down for a some lads kicking the footy around the pitch. Toronto FC just…reloaded? Can you reload something that was never full to begin with? They added Michael Bradley (baldy on the USMNT) and Jermain Defoe, the latest aging European striker to come make some easy cash in the American game.

Seattle has Clint Dempsey, captain of the USMNT. I irrationally hate Clint Dempsey. I don’t like his style, I don’t like his moves, and I really hate what he represents about American soccer. This saddens me, as I think Seattle is the coolest fan base in American soccer, or at least competitive with Portland. I don’t know why the Pacific Northwest has taken to the game so hard, but I’m glad they have. I want to like Seattle, but I have to side with Toronto in this one.

The following is Live-Blog style:

The Seattle crowd is really interesting. They’re hardcore insofar as they are they showed up, and there’s a lot of them. 40,000 in the Seahawks stadium, and it looks pretty cool. There’s a nice bit of coordinated chanting, traditions, etc. And yet…

There’s always this ‘And Yet’ with the MLS. Not sure what it is. You can just tell that this game isn’t in our blood yet. The crowd is trying really hard. I guess that’s what you have to do when you’re a soccer fan in America. 

-There’s something reductive about watching a soccer game and having an elaborate national anthem ceremony that celebrates America. Relating to our trip to watch Germany V USA in DC, the darkside of American soccer is how ruthlessly nationalistic soccer fandom can get. Perhaps because the MLS is so young I like to imagine that the league could find a way not to embrace that element of soccer culture, but let’s be real: sports in America are always gonna be about America #fuckyeah. 

– I’ve seen a lot of tension-building and stage-setting, and that’s both good and bad. The announcer just reminded us all that many in MLS believe that this is a turning point in the league. There are a lot of expectations on the league, and if this game turns out to blow, then I’m gonna walk away without having had my mind changed. 

– This game has been going for 2 minutes and I can already sense the difference. I once heard an interview with an American tasked with growing soccer in China. He had played in high levels in Europe and then was the first American to play in an top Asian league or something like that. Anyway, he said that the problem Americans have as they develop into soccer players is that from birth they have a fundamentally incorrect relationship with the ball. Americans see a ball and they think they have to kick it as hard as they can in order to prove their worth. We grow up practicing kicking a ball, as we think that kicking the ball is the most important element of soccer. When you see shots go in, it’s because of hard kicks and we like scoring.

This is wrong. In other countries kids grow up dribbling balls too and from school, or dribbling in their room, or the alley, or wherever. They learn how to control and manipulate the ball from a very young age. The ball becomes something that you can have a very nuanced relationship with. It’s the difference between learning the game in a formal setting, with drills and what not vs. playing pickup games. 

This game is just punting back and forth. It’s what I imagine the Championship is like. I suppose it makes sense. American soccer players are going to be physically fit and able to jump up high to get a ball. However, it robs the game of a certain tactical brilliance. I watched Chelsea-Aston Villa this morning and without a doubt Aston Villa would have nearly 70% against either one of these sides. 

-I suppose the theory is that with all the fast players on the field you should just try to get the ball downfield and let the poachers hunt it down, but wow. It would be soooo coool to see you guys try a short pass. 

-Oh, good Clint Dempsey has already tried to start some shit with people. Shut up, Duece. 

– Some actual really nice soccer! A sequence of first touch passing from Seattle sends the ball bouncing around in some really aesthetically pleasing triangles. 

– Maybe a new way to interpret all these long balls is that it’s manifest destiny soccer. It’s all very naive and optimistic. The players aren’t good enough to play incredible lock down defense, so every ball forward means their might be a bobble or a chance created. The ball has a divine right to be downfield, even if that means suffering death at the hands of the elements of untamed savages. Ever westward. 

-ooooooooooooh. A goal, and it comes from totally competent soccer. Toronto gets the ball in the final third and Jermain Defoe is sitting in the little pocket between central defenders. The midfielder scoots a through ball right in front of him and he’s one-on-one with the keeper. Defoe, who could be playing somewhere in Europe, is far too quality to fuck up an easy goal like that. 

-Oh. Wow. Defoe with a second goal. I think he likes playing against MLS defenders. A horrible backpass from Seattle that Defoe intercepts and then he embarrasses the defender. 

– It’s new to watch a game with few luminous players and also some serious dreck. The good players really start assert themselves in a way that you don’t see in the Premiere League, where defenses are good enough that you need passing to unlock things. For some reason it really helps me understand the power of having a playmaker. Makes you wonder what a guy like Andre Pirlo could do in this league. 

-I appreciate that this crowd hasn’t shut up. I don’t think I like Seattle’s team one bit, but I appreciate the vibe. I could also see learning to hate this vibe, in the same way I hate Yankees fans. It’s that hate that emerges from love. 

-End of the first half is 2-0 Toronto. I planned on ending here, but fuck it. I’m gonna go all the way and see what happens. So far Seattle hasn’t done shit. They remind me of Tottenham. Lots of good players, probably can play well on the right day, but this isn’t the right day. Toronto reminds me of Liverpool, with Defoe in the Suarez role. That have a tall lanky guy who could be Daniel Sturridge, and Michael Bradley does a good Steven Gerrard impersonation. 

– I don’t think i’ve given credit to the fact that Toronto has played very smart defense. They’re communicating and protecting space in the middle third really well. I appreciate their work rate and commitment to pressing. Seattle is looking a bit undisciplined at the back. Well, i mean, beyond having given up two goals on stupid defensive mistakes. 

– Players have less of a plan in the MLS. They’re definitely thinking one step ahead, but they have trouble thinking two or more moves ahead and it limits the possibilities for creative soccer. When you look at the German national team you see every player on the field reacting to every pass, shifting around to fill space and create new passing possibilities. Here everything is going in a relatively straight line. The overall offensive intelligence of these two teams is just generally lower. It reminds me of playing FIFA13 on my iPad. The AI just can’t do what is happening at the highest level. 

-I suppose and English announcer would call the level of tactical intelligence “A bit crude, overall. But diligent.”

-The goalie for Toronto is on the Brazilian national team. He’s the first ever active member of the Brazilian national team to play in the MLS. That’s cool, in a completely un-ironic way. 

– A theme i havent mentioned: The MLS referees are currently locked-out in a labor dispute. Not sure what refereeing is like in the MLS normally, but right now this replacement ref wont let ANYTHING go down. Grabbing a jersey gets a free kick without hesitation. Seems very U13 style. 

-Haha. In that vein, Clint Dempsey gets away with really cynically laying in a cheap shot on the Spanish player on Toronto. The Spanish player, in classic Spanish player fashion, goes down like he’s shot. I hate to say this, but the MLS needs more flopping. Makes it more theatrical. 

– We need to get kids who end up becoming point guards in basketball to start playing soccer. You can see the MLS players are all vertically obsessed, which has it’s strengths and weaknesses. I bet there are small quick guys who play soccer in America, but few of them are at an elite level yet. When I try to explain soccer athleticism to people, I say that Lebron James would be an amazing soccer player. I would imagine he would play like YaYa Toure. However, we also need some Chris Paul’s/Eden Hazards. Right now the average MLS player is more like David West than Stephen Curry. Don’t ask me to explain that. It makes perfect sense. 

– Goal for Dempsey on the breakaway. Really nicely played counterattack has Dempsey sitting right in the middle of the penalty box with the ball at his feet. It crushes it home. It was a classic cowboy goal, run like hell and shoot anything that moves. It works, and Seattle thinks they’re gonna get back in this game. 

– Oops. NBC has cut me off from watching. NBC exec who’s reading this: If I can watch a EPL game for 48 hours on demands but I can’t watch an MLS game, there’s a problem growing your brand. 

Okay, to recap: A spirited game. Toronto goes on to win 2-1. Hell, I’m not gonna lie. I had a good time. It was real soccer, with some actual thought being put into it. There’s a certainly a style, and that style demands extreme conditioning. Everyone’s running as hard as they can all the time, and that adds a level of excitement to everything. I think perhaps it may lead to some ragged defensive play, and no one really has the first touch to do the things they want while also sprinting down the field full tilt. You rarely see a player stop the ball and hold up play while the rest of the team runs down to join him. No one surveys the landscape, looking to pick out the best pass. It’s gunslinger football. It’s not all together unappealing, and I’m curious to watch other teams to see how much this holds true. 

But seriously, Ozil would destroy this league. 



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