By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 19, 2011) US Soccer Players — We’ve all seen quotes where some English soccer executive flatters the North American game by saying Major League Soccer has clubs that could compete in the Championship or even the lower level of the Premier League. Stripped of any context like a sponsorship agreement or other Transatlantic linkup, these sorts of statements might work to convince some that what’s on display in MLS is the equal of clubs most fans would recognize in England. Certainly not the teams competing for European places at the top of the Premier League table, but then again that’s true of most of the EPL.
What it means in practice? Well, it’s always nice to hear a compliment, even if it might be based on relatively little. Sort of like the Premier League star who lets slip he watches MLS on a weekend while he happens to be on tour with his club in an MLS city. Again, nice to hear even if it ends up the equivalent of American actors and musicians expressing a passing fondness for soccer when they’re working in Britain.
Aside from players considering clubs, you get the feeling that whatever interest there is in MLS in England is probably complimentary, but not exactly obsessive. Fair enough, but in the wake of Sunday’s Manchester City – Arsenal game it might be worth reversing that discussion. When we start tagging high level Premier League games with words like ‘intensity,’ are we moving into a discussion that might be quite familiar to viewers on the American side of the Atlantic?
If you’re biased, what you saw on Sunday were two teams trying to tease each other out, probing for weaknesses, and both relying on their goalkeepers to keep each other honest. It was a game that wouldn’t be decided by a lucky bounce, an opportunistic deflection, or anything short of that moment of brilliance English announcers like to talk about.
Then again, there’s a read on all of those things that might pronounce the same game somewhat underwhelming. Not boring exactly, but two teams unable to really turn on any magic. The same style of play lower down the table or at Championship level might not win any accolades. There were moments – stretches actually – where the ball was passed around the back while the other team man-marked every conceivable passing lane that were almost MLS in their strategic futility.
Stripped of the sense of occasion, there was a lot MLS fans should recognize. This isn’t an attempt to prop up an old point Alexi Lalas once made about switching out the jerseys and not noticing much of a difference. Instead, it’s simply looking at what England is producing in their big games and noticing a few similarities that might not be on display with top teams in other leagues.
For instance, no one would be confusing the Cesena – Inter Milan game that immediately preceded the Manchester City – Arsenal game with anything that regularly happens in MLS. Both teams were playing a style that is foreign in the full extent of the word to what’s business as usual on an MLS weekend. That’s also true for a Premier League match day, with what happens week after week in Serie A simply not the same.
That’s not to argue that one is better than the other, they’re just noticeably different. Serie A doesn’t compare as easily with the Premier League as the Premier League does with MLS. The same is true for a number of leagues around the world, including Mexico’s Primera. There’s a stylistic difference that doesn’t take a top of the table clash to be noticeable.
For all of the effort to turn the Premier League into a cosmopolitan representation of the game at the highest level, it remains quite stubborn in living up that. A handful of clubs over the last few seasons sure. There’s no denying that some teams have tried to be different. But it’s the status quo stamping their brand on the product. Tenacity can be subbed in for intensity, and we’re going to end up talking about athleticism and work rate to fill out the description.
Maybe part of this is a surplus of very expensive interchangeable parts. Manchester City and Arsenal have very different managers with very different coaching styles using some of the same players to put their systems into practice. They’re hardly alone, separating the contemporary Premier League from even the recent past when one great player could prove the difference in a title campaign. What Wayne Rooney needs from his supporting cast at Manchester United has become it’s own clich茅 in English soccer writing for a reason. It’s the journalistic equivalent of an open goal.
To a certain extent, so are cross-league comparisons. The value here isn’t to prop up Major League Soccer through questionable flattery. It’s the same question we were all asked as children. "So what do you wanna be when you grew up?" It’s at least worth considering that the answer isn’t the English Premier League. Right now, that comparison is simply too easy to avoid.
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