SEATTLE, WA - JULY 20: Gabriel Obertan #26 of Manchester United passes the ball through the legs of Taylor Graham #26 of the Seattle Sounders FC during the second half of the game at CenturyLink Field on July 20, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. Manchester United won the game 7-0. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Ah, the gnashing of teeth. The putting of words into the mouth. Many people over the past week or two have been putting forward the idea of #TrophiesNotFriendlies. Some have adopted the slogan as it is quick, easy and poignant, but they don't necessarily speak for myself. Considering how much chatter there has been concerning friendlies this year, and the latest statements from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, it is time to clarify. Let's look at the headline first, because it really shows the origins of the campaign.
Garber: Clubs should set their own summer priorities
That right there is the first significant issue. Who wants to be a fan of a team that decides that their priority is for a cash grab rather than winning games? Because due to fixture congestion prioritization is an issue. This year the Sounders had the advantage of a weekend game being canceled, but part of the reason that Seattle has emptied its bench in every friendly is because they do place a higher priority on the games that can result in a trophy. Garber goes on about this prioritization strongly suggesting that teams should be trying to win their friendlies, implying that losing League, Open Cup or CONCACAF Champions League matches due to a friendly would be OK.
"Nobody likes to lose 7-0," Garber said to a throng of media at halftime of Wednesday’s All-Star Game. "You don’t like to lose 7-0 in a schoolyard soccer match. Our view is that if we’re going to play these games, we ought to play to win. And if a team can’t fit it into their schedule either because of congestion or their own priorities, then they shouldn’t play in those games.
"I think Seattle regrets playing their second team, reserves, even trialists against Manchester United. I don’t think we’d ever do anything like that again."
Here's another objection to those that single out the Sounders for that result. Trialists and deep reserves play in friendlies in every league, in every country in the world. That's the non-financial point of friendlies. It is why unlimited, or high numbers, of substitutes are allowed. That Garber wasn't embarrassed when Jordan Jennings, invitee keeper, came on against Celtic last year proves that he's making statements based on a score, not a philosophical concept. He wasn't embarrased that United played their third keeper. It is only this one result that gets called out, not the fact that he set-up a tournament with 11 subs permitted. If reserves aren't supposed to play, why do his rules allow it? Why doesn't he object when the Euro sides do it?
Don Garber's statements show the very problem with friendlies beyond the financial gains. If a team is to treat them like competitive matches they would not be friendlies. If they actually mattered there would be a limit on the number of substitutes.
There are clubs that need the financial benefits of friendlies. But they are also losing interest among many American fans. Juventus and Sporting Lisbon had terrible attendance. The games among the minor clubs visiting Portland, San Jose, Orlando, etc did not generate great revenue, nor much in the way of increased local media interest.
Now, I agree with Jeremiah. If friendlies are to happen they should be amongst the biggest of clubs.
But I strongly disagree that any club should ever place a priority on friendlies over league play, ala the New York Red Bulls. Clubs should have two priorities, one on the pitch and the other off of it. The one on the pitch would be to win as many games, and thereby trophies, as possible. Off the pitch they should strongly connect with the community in which they exist. Between those two ideals an organization should have strong attendance that is not connected to a foreign power, but instead they would make substantial money because of who they are. Not who they aren't.
If it is a matter of priorities, both for your money and the club's effort, what is more important to you - one game that doesn't matter, or the three competitions that do?