An Appraisal of TFC and MLS

Jul 10, 2012 by

An Appraisal of TFC and MLS

As the 2012 Euro culminated on July 1, with an impressive 4-0 Spain victory over Italy, a week later I find myself looking for a replacement. I can already feel the withdrawals from watching such beautiful and inspiring soccer over the past month.  There is really nothing to compare to the high level of soccer played at this year’s Euro, or events such as the World Cup, and it’s important to note that the current Spain team is one of the most impressive clubs ever assembled.  But as I consider where to find my future soccer fix I am also sadly reminded of what we have in North America in Major League Soccer (MLS) and wonder how long it will take before this league develops into a world- class product.  I ask myself what it will take before I’m willing to pay my own money to watch teams like Toronto FC (TFC) or even spend more than 10 minutes watching a random game on television. Unfortunately, since the league’s inception in 1996, I have found it difficult to stomach a game for more than a few minutes without feeling a wave of nausea or the desire to watch something completely unrelated in order to feel cleansed from the local bastardized version of the game. This may sound especially hard given the relative infancy of the league, but MLS has been around long enough and I want more from this league.  But I also realize that if I’m going to be so critical of the product I have to at the very least, make more of an effort to understand it and give it a chance.  So after years of rejecting the game, on June 23, I finally acquiesced, and accepted a ticket from a friend to watch TFC play the New England Revolution to a 2-2 tie.  Hence, I will use this experience as a template for this discussion with a focus on TFC.  It might be a bit unfair to use TFC as my case study: in their short existence, they have arguably one of the most embarrassing teams and biggest failures in the MLS; but we have to start somewhere and I live in Toronto. Unfortunately, I found that many of my perceptions of the league continue to be in place; however, I also found a few things that at the very least, give me pause for hope.

The lasting impression I took away from my first MLS game is that the level of play is still far too raw and unrefined.  The Toronto FC-New England Revolution match was an error-filled affair undeserving of a winner.  Fittingly, New England tied the game in the 90th minute when just minutes before, a small crowd of fans in the north-west corner of the field, could be heard chanting: ‘We’re gonna win the game / You’re never gonna believe it /We’re gonna win the game.”  This has to be both the oddest and worst chant I have ever heard uttered at a sporting event and it seems as though the sporting gods punished TFC fans for their eagerness to award their team victory.  Despite leading at the end of the first half 2-0, Toronto was lucky to earn a tie and if it were not for the excellent play of their goaltender, Milos Kocic, they would have lost.  The overall play of the match was erratic, choppy, and filled with turnovers and broken plays.  It was stunning to see the frequency of which the most basic of plays would go awry, with players regularly having difficulty receiving the ball, giving passes, making crosses or even holding the ball in their feet without bumbling it or turning it over. There was very little flow to the game, but much to the delight of the enthusiastic 18,887 supporters, broken plays would often lead to scoring chances.  Aside from the stellar goaltending of Kocic, very few individual players stood out among their peers.  There were bursts of play that revealed signs of promise, but the overall experience was defined by missed opportunities, sloppy play and mediocrity – sadly confirming what I had anticipated.  I know that this game in itself cannot be a measuring stick for all of MLS, but now I find myself watching games on television hoping to disprove some of my own observations – but what I continue to find is that the game is consistently inconsistent and at times unbearable.  If anything I have only found more evidence to support my overall view of the league – that it’s a bastardized version of the beautiful game played in other parts of the world and that it needs help.

One thing that must be said about MLS is that its soccer players are all great athletes. Most embody the look of an exemplary competitor.  A lot of them were probably good at multiple sports and to the unrefined eye they could be mistaken for great soccer players – but collectively they are not, they are just great athletes.  If they were actors in a film portraying top-class soccer players, they would be good enough to render to the average viewer a realistic representation. Actual soccer requires more, however; and, from what I have seen, the majority simply don’t have it. In many respects it’s not the players’ fault, especially those who were raised in the United States and Canada; they have been moulded by generations of inferior soccer coaches who emphasize strength and conditioning and raw aggression over the finer aspects of the game.  For these athletes there is nothing to be ashamed of: they’re playing at the highest level of their capabilities and are being paid to do so; but the overall product on the field is far too raw and at times embarrassingly poor. They’ve adopted an ugly style of North American play which lacks finesse and cool and is more mechanical and rough and at times resembles something closer to a glorified senior men’s league game than a professional soccer match.  There are a few players on each team that have some world-class talent, but they tend to play down to the level of the overall play and by the end of the match they simply blend in.

At times the play reminds of me of 8 year olds playing, where large groups of kids run towards the ball simply to gain possession and kick it forward towards the opposition. Players in the attacking zone, especially forwards, always seem to be in a hurry, moving forward without any vision, individually trying to beat a wall of players, much like a child does in recreational play.  Every free kick is treated like an attacking play. Rather than maintaining possession and systematically building an attack, free kicks, even from the defensive end, are treated like offensive opportunities, routinely booted towards the opposition’s goal, hoping for a lucky bounce, which might lead to a scoring opportunity.  There is little control or flow to the game; one sees mostly chaotic panic-filled moments where players simply want to get rid of the ball. Instead of trying to build a methodical attack and control the flow of the game, teams seem to be content to rush forward to get to the opposition’s side of the field just for the sake of doing so.   In fairness, it is not all awful.  There are flashes of brilliance, and stretches of sharp play, where I begin to wonder if I’m being too hard.  But these moments are fleeting and too rare and mitigated by long periods of sluggish, mediocre and awkward play. There is definitely talent on the pitch, but the game seems unnatural to most, there’s a lack of natural instinct and intuitiveness so commonplace even among the weaker teams in the Premiership.  But it’s also unfair to compare MLS to the elite leagues like the Premiership, La Liga, or Italian Serie A. There is no comparison, but it shouldn’t preclude us from wanting more.  As a fan of the game I want the local product to be world class, something for young players to aspire to and for fans to be proud to support.  Although I simply cannot accept the play as it currently stands, that doesn’t mean there are not elements of hope and promise.

Is this MLSE being playful or self depracating?

Despite the overall negative assessment of my first home game, there are positives I can cull from the experience, and they deserve to be mentioned here – namely the overall atmosphere.  BMO stadium is stunning. The field is immaculately maintained with impeccable sightlines throughout the stadium.  Its seating capacity is over 20,000, but it feels much more intimate, and it seems like there isn’t a bad seat on the grounds.  If I were a kid attending a game, I would long to play on that field – heck, as an adult sitting six rows back I found myself fighting the urge to run on the field at half-time just to run on the perfectly maintained pitch.

Another positive takeaway from the event is the local supporters – TFC fans are incredible. It was difficult to gauge their overall sophistication, considering some of the inane chants I overheard, but their enthusiasm is genuine and infectious and it translates into a palpable buzz at the game.  I was floored by the number of people wearing home colours and displaying real emotion and being an audible presence in support of the home team.   In a stiff and ‘too cool for school’ city such as Toronto, it’s rare to see such collective emotion and all-encompassing support at a sporting event involving a losing team.  This is a unique fan base that every sports organization should try to understand, because the product on the field is pedestrian and uninspiring and yet the fans are extremely supportive.  For some time I felt this following was simply a form of bandwagon support, common among new franchises and reflective of the local sports scene, but this explanation may be a gross oversimplification.  I’m not sure what’s behind this following, but its special and hopefully it doesn’t wane like other local fan support.  I don’t know if it’s the sport itself, or a fan-base desperate to will a professional sports franchise to success, or it’s Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) at its absolute best flexing its immense power and ability to sell a product.  In a multicultural city like Toronto one would think its popularity has been built from the ethnically diverse makeup of the city, but that would be simple politically friendly, corporate-speak and it seems like other intangibles are at play.    The feel of the stadium does encourage a party type of atmosphere, which is atypical of other MLSE venues, and has an allure of its own; and what sports fan doesn’t like to combine sports with a drink or two?  This in itself doesn’t explain the support, nor is it reason enough for a real soccer fan to attend a match; however, it’s most likely a combination of things I have already mentioned. This phenomenon of unbridled support by TFC fans is probably worthy of a treatment in itself, but the important thing to take away is that these followers are starving for a winner and despite an awful home squad, they are commendable, loyal supporters who stand by their team.  It must be phenomenal for the players to walk out on that pitch knowing they have that kind of support; it’s too bad they don’t have the skill and talent to validate it. But there’s a foundation in place for TFC’s future success—its top notch facility and its passionate followers—and it inspires hope that it will eventually translate into a finer product on the field.

It gives me little enjoyment to be so highly critical of MLS and TFC and I don’t wish to be demeaning of the league’s players.  Like anyone who enjoyed the exemplary play at this years Euro, I want great soccer to be played on the grounds at BMO field and other MLS stadiums, but it’s simply not there.  The local game is unrefined, embarrassingly error filled and a far cry from the true professionals playing soccer in the elite European leagues.  I marvel at the local support and the cynic in me expects it to fade away, that is unless the product on the field changes dramatically. Hopefully I’m wrong and the fans remain steadfast and support this franchise until it, along with the league, turn the corner. It’s fantastic to see the game supported locally, but this is a farce of a product and I can’t help but feel like soccer fans are being sold a fake bill of goods.  Deep down this all feels like a ruse, like were being fooled into believing we’re witnessing world-class play; but if you spent anytime watching the 2012 Euro you will understand how far away this league is from being elite.  Nonetheless, we have to start somewhere and MLS has to continue to have support if countries like Canada and the United States are going to be relevant soccer powers.  But we also have to be honest about the product and look at ways to improve it and build from some of the encouraging infrastructure that already exists – in its stadiums and local support – and yes some of the local elite talent.  This league cannot be content to simply bring in former greats at the twilight of their career like David Beckham and coaches with British accents as a way of validating and promoting this league.  More importantly, this league needs to maintain its roots and foster the local talent in a more sophisticated way.  In my next article I will address a few points I feel are integral for MLS to consider before it can truly become a respectable entity.  In the interim, I will try to satiate my soccer needs by watching the odd MLS highlight and will be waiting for the Premiership to begin in August.  Sadly, I suspect it will be awhile before I return to BMO field.




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