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Politics aside, Celtic is still disappointing

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Reaction was swift, opinionated and generally pretty negative regarding the Sounders' announcement Wednesday that Celtic FC would be one of the team's "friendly" opponents this year.

Reaction was far less heated about the other friendly opponent, Boca Juniors of Argentina (i'll get more into that later).

Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer told Don Ruiz of the Tacoma News Tribune, as well as others, that he and the team were taken by surprise that people would be upset about any of this.

"I caught wind of (the controversy) this morning. It was the first I heard that there were people upset at their coming. Soccer has been a political game over the years and just about every team we could think of to bring has some political baggage that it carries. I was thinking of Barcelona coming last year: There is a strong movement and conflict between Barcelona and Real Madrid, and that is deeply rooted politically. Celtic’s been here numerous times. The fans have been great. The games have been good. We try not to get too deeply involved in politics: Sounders FC. We’re working on other games in other regions of the world, and I guess I can say the Middle East, Israel, where we’re exploring some possibilities there. That’s deeply political as well. We’re just here running a soccer team and not taking sides. We just want to provide our fans with some good entertaining football."

For the sake of this article, we'll take Hanauer at face value, and assume this decision was made in good faith. We'll even ignore the fact that Celtic is a polarizing club, regardless of what side of the fence you're on.

Instead, I'd like to focus on something more straightforward: I'm just a bit disappointed as a soccer fan.

I know Celtic has as long and storied a history as just about any club out there (founded in 1888). I know that they have an enormous fan base (supposedly millions worldwide). I even know that as recently as 2003 the team was among the world's best, earning a spot in the UEFA Cup final.

But let's not kid ourselves about who the Sounders will be facing on July 18.

This is a team that is currently ranked 72nd in IFFHS, which ranks clubs around the world, and failed to advance to the knockout stage of the Europa League.

While there is no doubt that the club's supporters will turn out, I know that as a relatively casual follower of European football (a classification I think I share with many Sounders fans) this match seems like a significant step down from last year's friendly opponents Chelsea (currently No. 4 in IFFHS) and FC Barcelona (No. 1). Granted, almost anyone would have been a step down from those two, but with teams like Manchester United (No. 5 in IFFHS), AC Milan (one of the most internationally decorated clubs in the world) and Tottenham Hotspur (currently one of the top four teams in the EPL) all visiting the U.S., one can't help but feel disappointed.

Back in January, our own Dave Clark created a ranking system that assigned points to leagues based on the number of players which received at least 10 national team caps (Dave tells me he'll be updating this soon once actual rosters are announced). Using this system, the Scottish Premier League, of which Celtic is one of the two dominant teams, was ranked 26th with three players. MLS, the English Championship and the second level of the German Bundesliga were among the leagues with more likely World Cup representatives.

Robbie Keane, the Irish National team captain who's currently on loan from Tottenham, is probably the best known player on the squad. As good as he may be, no one is going to argue that he's the kind of player who transforms casual soccer fans into die-hard footy fanatics the way players like Barca's Messi or AC Milan's Ronaldinho have certainly done.

I'm sure Celtic will represent a brand of football that is above most, if not all, MLS sides. The Scottish League is considered the 26th best league in the world, according to IFFHS, while MLS is ranked 46th. I have no doubt that the Sounders will have their hands full, even if starters log significant minutes.

It's just that the Sounders have been telling us that they want to be taken seriously, not just as a good MLS side, but as one that has some aspirations of becoming world class. The entire concept of friendlies rubs many serious soccer fans wrong, as it has the feeling of a cynical ploy to sell a few thousand extra tickets. In this case, it comes essentially in the middle of the season and only seems to distract from the goal of winning multiple trophies.

At least with Boca Juniors, fans will be exposed to a different style of soccer than they've previously witnessed at Qwest Field. The team is among the most decorated in the world and is considered one of the top 15 teams over the past two decades. Sounders management deserves credit for going a bit outside the box with this selection, although it's unfortunate the game will be played on a Wednesday, May 26. (Sigi Schmid made a comment Wednesday that this game allows the team to not have a reserve game that week and would likely feature "some different people.")

It's harder to find the same kind of thinking with the scheduling of Celtic, which will play on a Sunday (and after a Thursday game). Not only have Celtic visited Qwest Field twice since 2003 (they also played there the following year), but the style of football will essentially by EPL-lite.

I'm sure Celtic will draw plenty of fans, and the atmosphere will undoubtedly be festive. At this point in the Sounders' young top-division history, I'd just like to think that mid-season distractions should be saved for special occasions. Right now, this doesn't feel like one.

UPDATE: Pre-sale for the Boca Juniors game has started.

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