Breakdown: MLS clubs squander opportunity with summer friendly stumbles

Leave it to Thierry Henry to strike at the heart of the matter in the buildup to the friendly between Arsenal and New York at Red Bull Arena on Saturday.

The meeting between Henry’s current and former employers offered perhaps the highlight in a long string of attention-grabbing, revenue-generating friendlies between MLS clubs and foreign teams over the past week. Henry brushed aside any attempts to assign meaning ahead of the spectacle and instead touched on the impetus behind the game as part of his comments.

“I think hopefully the stadium will be full,” Henry told the New York Post. “Not having a go [at the fans], but that would be a first. So hopefully everybody can come and support us, too, not only Arsenal. But it’s what you make and what you do on the field that will make the stadium vibrate. Hopefully, we can do that on Saturday.”

New York lived up to its end of the bargain in the 1-0 victory, but the sight of Red Bull Arena teeming with Arsenal supporters offered a stark assessment of the reasons behind it.

These friendlies represent both a pragmatic nod to the financial realities for all involved parties and an opportunity for a different sort of ambassadorial work. They are a method of outreach for MLS teams, a way to tempt potential supporters otherwise disinterested in the domestic game for one reason or another. The foreign clubs are not the only participants seeking to cultivate interest and enhance their brand.

MLS ROUNDUP: VALERI DELIVERS FOR TIMBERS

This year offered MLS clubs to state their cases to a wider audience in the aftermath of the World Cup. The success of the U.S. national team and the tournament on the whole sparked interest in the country. The string of high-profile friendlies — despite their lack of actual meaning anywhere outside the balance sheet — represented a symbolic opening to capture some of the enthusiasm and underscore the progress made over the past few years.

By and large, the moment passed without establishing much credit or taking much advantage of the situation. New York captured its victory on a day when three other MLS teams failed to score a goal against English opposition. Seattle and Tottenham traded blows in an entertaining 3-3 draw to open the slate. Columbus held Crystal Palace to a 2-2 draw at Crew Stadium. San Jose took Atlético Madrid to penalties after a scoreless draw. Other clubs — including MLS Cup holders Sporting Kansas City and, most embarrassingly, LA Galaxy — slipped to defeat.

The actual results provide a poor metric of anything. European teams are trying to get fit. MLS teams want to keep their players healthy. It shows in the fare on the field with the liberal substitution patterns and the widespread use of reserves. It is by no means an accurate picture.

And yet the chance to entice and persuade still exists within it. The prospect of influencing people by failure or success in friendlies galls supporters cultivated through more traditional means, but it is still a component of the exercise nevertheless. On that count, these matches — with one or two exceptions and with the MLS All-Star Game against Bayern Munich still on the docket next week – fell short of the desired standard.

Henry captured the sentiment with his comments before the match, but his most important observation received considerably less attention. He also rather sagely noted the importance of the next league match against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday. It is in those circumstances where MLS will continue its primary growth. This is a league predicated on the organic and steady development of its clubs.

This past week distracted from the task at hand in a bid to acquire resources, maintain relevance and seize the initiative. The inability to grasp the opportunity shifts the onus back onto the more traditional fare to sustain the momentum in other ways as the season progresses.

Five Points – Week 21

1. Michael Bradley vents on the referees after Toronto FC’s home defeat to Sporting Kansas City: "It’s by no means an excuse, it was the same for both teams, but the referee was absolutely awful," Bradley told reporters. "The people at the MLS office in New York, when they talk about wanting to improve the league, the first thing that needs to be improved is the refereeing, bottom line. That shouldn’t come across as sour grapes because that’s just the reality. And it was bad for both teams and I’m sure they’re sitting in their locker room saying the same thing to themselves, but they’ve got three points with them and that certainly makes it a little easier to swallow.”

On a somewhat related note, PRO announced a partnership with Match Analysis to gather and use more data to assess MLS referees on Sunday.

2. Sporting continues its stellar road form: Jacob Peterson’s late winner exacerbated TFC’s displeasure at BMO Field and sealed a fifth straight road win on the trot for the MLS Cup holders. It is no surprise to see Sporting — a side reliant on its high pressure — thrive when the opposition is forced to chase the game a bit, but the extent of the success underscores the ability of this group to churn out results.

3. One particular run undoes New England: Ethan Finlay prompted Federico Higuain’s stunning opener (see below) by drifting inside from the right, slicing across Darrius Barnes (inserted at left back after Chris Tierney limped off with a left knee injury in the first half) and winning a foul in the attacking third. He then secured the Crew’s 2-1 victory at Gillette Stadium with a similar run through the channel with the Revs disconnected at the back. Finlay’s recognition ultimately provided the difference in a match where the outcome hinged on the ability to exploit and punish the fullback areas.

4. Vancouver pays for a lack of precision at both ends: Carl Robinson’s side bossed long stretches of the 2-2 draw against FC Dallas on Sunday. Its inability to procure maximum points stemmed from its uncertainty at the back and its wastefulness in front of goal. Both of those measures are part and parcel for a promising side still in need of reinforcements, but Pedro Morales — once again brilliant in the center of the park for the home side — will need some help to fuel those postseason ambitions.

5. Portland procures necessary points at Montréal: Diego Valeri popped up in the final 10 minutes to deliver an important 3-2 victory at Montréal. It will not go down as a work of art (the Timbers continued to struggle inside their own half), but it does constitute an important result for a group still firmly in the playoff mix despite its first-half struggles.