The MLS Deadspin Takedown Letdown

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I was pretty excited to see Deadspin take a break from pictures of athletes’ penises to dedicate 2,000 plus words to MLS’s upcoming season. Just the fact Deadspin knew the MLS season was starting is a pretty big step in the growth of the league’s media profile. However, after reading and re-reading (and re-reading) Bill Haisley’s analysis, three general things stick out: (1) He did some decent research on league happenings, but doesn’t really follow it, (2) The critiques are not very illuminating, and (3) Deadspin has tied their wagon to the Eurosnob corner of soccer in the US, a regrettable decision.

Now, for fun, let’s analyze paragraph by paragraph the take-down and assess each claim. I’m going to just ignore Bill’s over-the-top tone and word choice because, like, I’m sure he wouldn’t stoop so low to go trolling for pageviews. That’s what slideshows are for!

Let’s take a gander at the opening salvo:

The last line of the opening paragraph is so ironical I love it – “…and nobody cares.” So, we, the reader, are reading about something we don’t care about. The write presumably does not care about this subject. This creates a pretty unique position and complex relationship between reader, writer, and text. Basically, the text means nothing to us, yet holds us together. In that sense, MLS, ie “the text”, is like an unwanted child holding a marriage together.

In terms of factual assertions, yes Henry is old, Bradley is in Toronto, and MLS is still not among the world’s elite leagues. Western Europe is where the absolutely best soccer is played. Duh. I kinda like the next claim that focuses on the “top-down league structure” and really truly wish the author had elaborated on how this “neuter(ed) real competition.” I also disagree with his claim that MLS hardcore fans are “obnoxious” – if anything, they’re more accurately described as “thin-skinned” and perhaps paint too rosy a picture of the league. In part, that’s because of an emotional connection from seeing players play in real life and seeing primarily American (emphasis on ‘Merica) players ply their trade.

The claim that games are “full of dull play” is perhaps more accurate for the MLS of 2007 when long-balls and headers were the name of the game. The most recent edition has significantly improved possession play and creativity. Also, this claim, when taken in the context of a European-comparison, is disingenuous. There are plenty of shitty teams in La Liga, the Premiership, and Serie A who I would describing watching as “quite painful.” Yes, Barcelona and Real Madrid and Manchester City are fucking amazing, but they are not a league. They are specific clubs. Last season, the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake were both fun to watch, but for different reasons. Portland’s gung ho attack and RSL’s possession game are easy on the eyes.

Now, onto the next few paragraphs.

This section deals with the recent transfers of US players and what that means for the league. Billy does a good job of contrasting the tension between US and MLS fans: Bradley coming back is good for the league, but probably not so good for Bradley as a player. He’s right that Bradley had options in Europe, but MLS offered him a salary he wouldn’t have gotten abroad.

Now, the next few assertions.

I think we can all agree that Bradley’s return to MLS probably shows a lack of ambition (in terms of testing himself), but also impatience. Some of Roma’s midfielders like De Rossi are the wrong side of 30 (and could punch an opponent in the face at any time). Bradley probably would have gotten some more shots to crack and lock down a starting spot. However, he got offered a lot of money to basically guaranteed games. He’s also in Toronto, a town once described by native son Richard Whittall of TheScore as “Cleveland with a boner”. Could you turn down six million and Cleveland with a boner? I couldn’t.

The next few claims are on the mark: if Defore is motivated and gets service, he could be a quality striker in the Keane/Cahill mold. He’s right that perhaps Defoe, Cesar, and Bradley moved to get game time in a World Cup year, but that happens in Western Europe too. Does that mean the Bundesliga sucks because Kevin De Bruyne went there from Chelsea? Atletico Madrid’s goalie is on loan from Chelsea, so I guess La Liga blows too. Real Madrid loaned Michael Essien last year from Chelsea last year, so, like, fucking pathetic, no? And you thought they were good.

The Dempsey paragraph is interesting – it correctly notes that, at 31, he’s no spring chicken. However, Billy conveniently forgets that Deuce was playing for the New England Revolution in 2006 before the World Cup and was the US’s best player at the tournament, players playing in Western European nations be damned. What’s even more odd is how he outshined DeMarcus Beasley, who had reached the Champions League semifinals with PSV Eindhoven a year earlier. An MLS youngster outperforming a player with “European ambitions?” No shit.

He is right to not care about Kenny Cooper, though. Let it go.

Now, the next round of claims.

This is where the criticism gets convoluted. I think in 2006, it’d have been fair to complain about the overall quality of play. In fact, even team owners did so. Now, thanks to the Beckham rule and an ever-increasing salary cap, the overall quality is improved. Yes, there are some carpenters, but they’re making pretty nice doll houses. There are also plenty of skilled magicians like Henry who can still perform a nice trick or two. He’s right that we don’t often see first-touch passing plays like those Arsenal goals, but even Arsenal doesn’t pull of those goals on a regular basis (or come Spring, zing!).

And, again, Arsenal is a great club, not a league. I could link to plenty of games featuring QPR from yesteryear, Sunderland, Birmingham, Hull, Rayo Vallecano, Recreativo Huelva, and other Western European teams that are painful to watch. Also, if Billy gone to MLS soccer and their glorious video archives, he could have found some pretty nice goals that resulted from nice plays.

He is correct that MLS does not field any players as good as Messi. In fact, no other club except maybe Real Madrid can claim to field a player in that stratosphere. But, if you’re going to analyze a league, show me highlights for midlevel teams and even lower teams. This is purportedly a league takedown and comparison, but only really focuses on the cream of the cream of the crop.

Once again, I think the “poor first touch” criticism would have been pretty accurate in 2006 and, in 2000, perhaps best labeled a “shitty firs touch.” However, today it’s not spot on. Yes, the center backs are still rough around the edges for the most part, but most players could trap and control a strong 30 yard pass. They are not Andres Iniesta or Juan Mata, but they aren’t fire hydrants.

The next claim, that MLS has a topdown structure, is spot on. Billy is also right that the league clearly wants to push the big media markets, New York and LA. Otherwise Chivas USA would have died (or relocated) a longtime ago. Billy doesn’t mention, though, that most European leagues are heavily debt-ridden and that MLS has a salary cap. Thus, it’s this odd position of one league that worries about light bills and pinches pennies vs. another that maxes out the credit cards to make payroll twice a month. And they compete to sign the same talent.

Now, the next few claims.

The Donovan paragraph doesn’t make much sense in the context of this takedown, except to show the writer knows the details of past major MLS transfers. Congrats, Billy, you know the details of past major MLS transfers. But what about the part where Donovan played in MLS and had a monster 2010 World Cup, including this clutch goal vs. Algeria and this ice cold penalty kick vs. Ghana?

Billy then goes on to talk about MLS fans, pointing out that they’re reasonably sociable and don’t complain about watching subpar soccer. He mercifully and wisely avoids the lame debate about “authenticity” and MLS’ burgeoning supporter culture. The next few paragraphs then take a few shots at the league.

I actually dig his criticism of “Europhilia.” I was and am still against the Sporting KC rebrand. I still have and wear my Wizards jersey, and only begrudgingly put on a recently-gifted Sporting KC scarf when temperatures drop below 30 degrees. On the other hand, American sports have some pretty dumb names and why should soccer follow the “ferocious/powerful animal” line of labeling? The “Real” in Real Salt Lake is Spanish and means Royals. Should we shit on the KC Royals? Or is this a complaint about Spanish and should pro teams be English-only?

He’s right that the eurosnob debate has nothing to do with the quality of play in MLS. He’s right that there’s no solidarity points for watching a game. MLS really has gone to embarrassing points to try and attract eurosnobs, and it’s just not worth it. Your best bet is to improve the league’s play to the point where young kids prefer to see MLS live as opposed to pirated online streams of European clubs.

And that’s the note his last paragraph ends on. More Americans are watching soccer, but it’s European teams on TV. As people see a high level of play, they can’t then go slumming with MLS. This article makes some sense, but, then again, lots of minor league baseball, hockey, and basketball teams exist and have decent attendance where their fans can watch the pros online. Ultimately, this take-down was really just a mix of things we already know scattered with a few cuss words, over the top insults, and some dated but general observations. I’m happy Deadspin covered MLS and gave it 2,000 plus words, but sad they didn’t focus on the ownership structure or other systemic flaws.

Check out the Deadspin article here (they’ve also posted a response post from a former MLS player). I have zero permission from them to include the article snippets here and am expecting a Gawker Medica DMCA notice any minute. Lawyer up!

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