When a team has managed just a single draw in 20 years against a particular opponent at a particular stadium, getting another one is a big event. When a team normally fills their ranks with players from European leagues but instead stocks the team with players from MLS due to injuries and other issues, it can be a big event. When these things impact what many people consider one of the most heated international rivalries in sport, it is big. That is what happened on Tuesday night when the US Men’s Soccer Team took the pitch at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City to face the Mexican National Team and in the past two days there have been many published thoughts about what happened and what it might mean for both soccer in general and for Major League Soccer and US Soccer specifically. Who am I not to jump on this bandwagon and offer some thoughts?
The biggest thing that has jumped out to me after the match isn’t what most people have focused on, for me it has been the number 7,000,000. That is the number of people in the United States that watched the match on TV, the most ever for a World Cup Qualifying match. 4.6 million of those people watched the match on Uni Mas, while 2.4 watched the match on ESPN. That number on ESPN was 47% more than people who watched the NBA match that was showed at the same time on TNT (LA Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks), that is a huge accomplishment for US Soccer. I think the appeal of the US vs. Mexico match, along with the excitement of last week’s US vs. Costa Rica match (the snow match in Denver) sure helped boost ratings. These numbers both on of these networks were record highs for this type of programming, a great accomplishment for the networks, the teams, and for the fans of both sides.
Once we get beyond the amazing TV numbers and take a look at the match itself, the result simply speaks for itself, you don’t have to like the style, but with the US holding a 0-13-1 in WCQ’s in Mexico, and 1-23-1 all time at matches in Mexico, it is about holding tight and doing what you can. The starting XI for the US included 3 current MLS players, but all 11 of them had played in MLS at some point of their careers and 2 of the 3 US subs were current MLS players and the other had of course played in MLS until this season. So for the first time I can ever remember the USMNT roster for a World Cup Qualifieer was made up of players that all either owed their roots or were currently playing in MLS, and that team of players who play in a league that many even in the US consider to be a sub-par league went into Azteca Stadium and did something that had only been done once before, they got a result.
I think it was said best by Brian Dunseth, “the gap is closing” and while it has to be pointed out that may be the case the 3 MLS players that started in this match were among the “elite” of the league. Matt Besler is the defending MLS defender of the year, Omar Gonzalez, won that award in 2011, and Graham Zusi is likely one of the next MLS players to be heading to Europe (hell if West Ham had a clue he would already be there). It wasn’t as if Jurgen had just plucked a couple of centerbacks at random, still for Gonzalez who has under 20 caps, and Besler earning just his second it is impressive to see how well they responded. So while the “gap” between MLS guys and the usual USMNT guys has closed more than a lot of people may have realized, I think it would be very hard to do a position by position comparison between the US players and those who were on the pitch for Mexico. The match stats show a 58% to 42% edge in possession for Mexico, a 491 to 351 edge in passes, an alarming 19 to 1 edge in shots, 15 to 2 edge in corner kicks, and simply domination for a majority of the match by Mexico. It would be hard to say that the “gap” has closed much between the two sides but we could know a lot more about that in September when the two sides meet again.
I do honestly believe the “gap” between MLS players and those around the world is closing quickly, but I thought on the latest edition of #OnFrame
) that Trey Fitz-Gerald hit it on the head when he commented about the fact that while MLS players may be undervalued by the big leagues of Europe, with the current salary cap restrictions in MLS they seem to be undervalued by MLS. It is that fact that has to change if the “gap” is going to continue to shrink, MLS must find a way to value their current and future players more. I think if you compare the top players in MLS there is no doubt that many of them have the ability to play overseas but you can’t just look at the top 10% of the league who can fit into the 90% level of top leagues but the 90% of MLS players who aren’t there yet and in some cases may never be. I know that is a bit harsh but due to the salary cap and other issues we know that many of the best and most talented athletes in the United States don’t play soccer, they follow the money and fame of the NBA, the NFL, MLB and NHL all of which offer much greener pastures. When MLS can offer up more money, and the expressway between MLS and other leagues around the world continues to develop we will see that start to change but those are things that will take time and keep the “gap” in place for at least the next 4-5 years.
I will end with something that many others have commented on that the USMNT may have found their “grit” in these last two matches, that determination that when coupled with the physical abilities of the players allow them to dig deep, and as many have said “to run thru walls” to get the result. I think they are right, we know that MLS has some great athletes who may lack behind others in soccer talent, but they lack behind nobody in fitness, toughness, and the ability to fight for each other. In the snow of Colorado they showed that “grit” but in Mexico they showed that nothing can stand in their way if they play together, and that sure was enough to make me proud to be a supporter of the USMNT.
That’s How I See It