Red Devilfest 2017: LAG 2 – MUFC 5

In a sporting culture where the hardness of the core of your support holds great currency, I’d like to claim some extra credit.  As the sun beat down from the evening sky in Carson, CA, I sat swaddled in the man-made fabrics of my Los Angeles Galaxy Jersey around which was wrapped the thick polyester of my Manchester United training jacket.  Further squeezing the sweat from my pores was the 2014 dual Man United and LA Galaxy scarf from the last time a Los Angeles venue was made to feel like a Man United-themed swap-meet.

Two teams I loved were meeting on the field of play and I was determined to display my bipartisan affections, even if it meant shunning the hard-earned lesson of a 2005 day-trip to Tijuana that in searing heat, polyester was not your friend.

These are curious occasions.  I’m sure the feelings are somewhat akin to a mother watching her sons facing off in a boxing ring.  You want them both to do well, but also to come out unscathed.

Interestingly, considering the coverage of the game after the fact, I’d left the stadium with a feeling of positivity.  This was fed by my intimate knowledge of both teams and squads.  No sooner had I seen the starting line-ups for the first half, I’d mentally and emotionally written off the proceeding 45 minutes.  United had announced a pretty strong team.  The Galaxy on the other hand, probably couldn’t have fielded a weaker one.

The attitude of the hosts was plainly to do nothing more than meet the obligation of putting eleven players on the field.

If you’d like an illustration of this, I invite you to look up the highlights of the Galaxy’s recent match at home to Houston.  Note the Goalkeeping.  See how the ball sails hilariously past Clement Diop’s palms on that first goal.  Try not to blurt out a ‘WTF’ on the second.

Jon Kempin, the starting first half goalkeeper for the friendly against Man United, is behind that guy in the pecking order.

Watching Marcus Rashford put this team to the sword held little value to me.  If you wanted to know if he could overcome Nathan Smith and Hugo Arellano, you could have saved yourselves a flight and just asked me.  The 3-0 scoreline was almost inevitable.

The second half saw another strong side fielded by United, along with most of the Galaxy’s available starters.  In this second half of football, the Galaxy gave a decent account of themselves, trading a couple of goals with their storied counterparts.

The scrubs had been walloped but the first team had held their own.  I’d got to enjoy my lifelong team playing some decent football and I’d even helped squeeze a couple of Galaxy chants out of the ambivalent crowd.

Honestly, the first half may have been the worst atmosphere I’ve ever witnessed at a game of professional football.  The LA Riot Squad had largely not turned up, while the Angel City Brigade took some time getting to their seats.  At the time of writing, I don’t know if there was some kind of protest being staged by the Supporters Groups, or if the ACB entrance was a logistical or security thing, but their voices were sorely missed.

Credit goes to the actual Mancunians in attendance who did their best to raise some noise.  At least I assume they were Mancunians: I doubt even the most devout Europoseur could nail the Manchester accent so perfectly.

Sadly their efforts to muster participation in such chants as “The Pride of all Europe” and “U-N-I-T-E-D” fell flat as by no fault of their own, the local Angelinos simply weren’t familiar with the words.  By  the end of the second half, resorting to “United!”, “Glory Glory Man United” and booing Ashley Cole had better results.

I regret that while it occurred to me to loudly chant “Can you hear anyone sing…!”, I lacked the testicular fortitude to follow through.

So the game ended 5-2, a result I can be pragmatic about.

Unfortunately for Major League Soccer and the LA Galaxy, I have proven to be in the minority.

The Daily Mail praised Marcus Rashford’s performance, with nary a mention that he was being marked by a guy who made his professional MLS debut a month prior and hasn’t taken the field for them since.

Gary Lineker had a minor twitter quarrel after tweeting during halftime that MLS clearly had a way to go.

Then there’s the few casual observers I’ve spoken to in real life, commenting on Man United’s dominance.

On reflection, the second half performance had the dueling Man United and Galaxy supporters within me respectively feeling modest concern and mild contentment with the teams, alongside the overriding notion that this was about fitness and minutes for one team, and cash and a lack of injuries for the other.

Given the reaction, I hope it was a lot of money.

This season seems to have seen a bit of a price hike for these games and even though as a Galaxy season ticket holder, I got a healthy discount, if it wasn’t United I probably wouldn’t have bothered.  I was surprised to read that on the eve of the game, only 19,000 tickets had been sold.  That’s quite alarming when the visitor is arguably the biggest football club on the planet and has routinely filled 80k+ capacity venues on previous tours.  On the night however, while it was visible to the naked eye that there were vacant seats, it looked significantly north of a 19k crowd, so perhaps the frantic endeavours of the sales reps the prior evening and ample walk-ups mitigated the situation somewhat.

In any case, if the clubs and league aren’t making serious coin out of these friendlies, then they seriously need to reconsider participating.

I’ve been to several of these matches and the attitude towards the results is always the same.  I’ve been present for a 2-2 tie with AC Milan, narrow victories against Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Mexico’s Club America, as well as a 3-1 victory over Juventus.

The reaction:  it’s just a friendly.  In the cases of Boca and America, it was rightly noted that significant portions of the games had been played with their youth and reserve players.

On the other hand, if a foreign team – especially a high profile European club – beats an MLS team, especially if it’s by multiple goals, the reaction covers the spectrum from melancholy to vitriolic.  It’s held up as “yet another example of how far behind MLS truly is”.

I’m just going to say that regardless of who wins, there are myriad reasons why the end results are largely meaningless, and leave it at that.

However, let’s be completely frank here: MLS is behind the leagues of any of the teams mentioned.  Add the top divisions of Spain, Germany and France to that list, among various others.

That’s known, established, and contrary to the weird beliefs that seem to sprout forth at this time of the year, understood and accepted by any MLS fan with a functioning adult brain.

There’s little wonder, and indeed little shame in that situation.  We’re talking about a league of clubs, in a 22 year old league, in a nation where the game remains niche, where the average market value of a squad is something like one seventieth of Manchester United’s.

Yet United could lay an exhibition beating on a Belgian team that leaves them more humiliated than a grown man caught laughing at Tosh.O, and the world wouldn’t bat an eyelid.  There certainly wouldn’t be a frenzy of hot-take autopsies of Belgium’s Jupiler League.

Claims like Lineker’s “MLS has a way to go” implies that somehow the situation isn’t good enough; that because the league is ‘not yet’ on par with the top leagues, it’s a failure.

Well here’s some cold, hard truth from an actual MLS supporter: if the world is waiting for US soccer to be on a par with the any league in the top five of the UEFA Club Coefficients, if that is somehow the measure, if falling short of that mark does indeed equal failure, then we may as well pack it all up and resign the US to being a nation that gets its football fix from EPL and La Liga.

The way global football has evolved, with its power structure comprised of superclubs, players and federations, means that catching the top leagues is a ludicrous proposition.  The other UEFA leagues have their work cut out, let alone those outside the Confederation.  Brazil is as close as it gets and its domestic game is still effectively a conveyor belt of future superstars for the UEFA big guns.

My view of MLS is that it is a very solid league.  I say this as someone who has obviously been used to Manchester United, the Premiership and European football at its best.

It has room to improve but for all Don Garber’s “top league by 2022” hyperbole, which I frankly don’t think even he believes, nobody else is reasonably expecting MLS to hit EPL standard any time soon.  It can be a lofty dream, but must be accepted as that.

To my mind, as a person who already enjoys the league with its competitiveness and steady improvement, I’ll be happy if it reaches Liga MX standard.

That’s not a slam either.  I personally believe that the level, competitiveness and style of play, makes Liga MX one of the most watchable leagues on the planet.  While they’ve not done themselves justice in the Club World Cup to date, we’re talking about a league that has routinely held its own in the Copa Libertadores.

So to wrap up: MLS obviously isn’t as good as the EPL, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundelsiga.  It probably never will be.  If it ever is, it’ll probably be long after I’ve spun off this mortal coil.  And that’s okay.  Because when you look at the world of soccer as a whole, that’s true for everyone else – and MLS is in a very great deal of good company.

If these exhibitions put the league and clubs in such a bad light, drawing unfair comparisons and misrepresenting the level and atmosphere, not to mention cramming non-competitive fixtures into an already-congested season, perhaps MLS would be better off leaving the money on the table.

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