Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


MLS: DRAWN AND MORE THAN QUARTERED

This Saturday, Major League Soccer will kick off its 17th season, tying it with the old North American Soccer League (1968-84) as the country’s longest tenured national pro soccer league.  With the addition of its 19th club, the expansion Montreal Impact, the league will play 323 regular-season games, 17 more than in 2011.  The climactic MLS Cup is scheduled for Saturday, December 1, making this the league’s longest campaign in its history.  And for the first time, every match will be televised, thanks to ESPN, Univision, new partner NBC and various Canadian networks.  [March 7]

Comment:  Another set of milestones for a league that a dozen years ago was in danger of falling flat on its back, but for those who care about what goes on down on the field, perhaps we’ll see some improvement in the standings, where wins and losses are in danger of being surpassed by ties, draws and deadlocks.

Last season, with 18 MLS teams each playing 34 regular-season games for a total of 306, a whopping 106 of those matches ended in a tie.  That’s 34.6 percent, or more than a third.  The New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire registered 16 draws apiece, breaking the record of 14 set the previous season by FC Dallas.  Toronto FC and the Philadelphia Union were next at 15, and another nine teams posted 10 draws or more.  In fact, 11 teams finished with more ties than victories, including all those who made up the bottom nine.

Is there a trend in place?  In 2010, in a 16-team MLS, only three clubs hit double digits in ties, and just one club, the New England Revolution (5-16-13), had more ties than wins.  Teams each played 30 games that year and they racked up 58 draws–24.1 percent of all results.

To a disdainful general American public, soccer and ties are almost synonymous.  But compare MLS with the Italy, the land where, as popular perception would have it, the scoreless tie was invented, and games are so tight, oftentimes so negative, that the players walk onto the field hoping for that one, blissful penalty-kick call.  Yet in 2010-2011, Serie A’s 20 clubs, each playing 38 matches, had 97 ties in 380 games–25.5 percent, just more than a quarter of all results.  Half of the teams tied at least 10 games, led by Fiorentina, with 16.

“We’re not going to eliminate ties from Major League Soccer, but we have way too many ties and way too many zero-zero ties,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told the Newark Star-Ledger in July, as the draws were piling up at an alarming rate.  “What could we do as a league to make it more valuable for a club to play to win every game as opposed to playing for just a point?  We’re looking at what those initiatives could be.  And that is a league initiative.”

[For the record, Commissioner, of those 106 ties last year, 27 were scoreless.]

What’s troubling here is that not only has MLS not taken concrete steps to reverse the trend (meaningful player bonuses for victories, perhaps?), it has offered little in the way of explanation beyond praising its parity and competitiveness.

MLS is catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to intimate stadiums and boisterous followings, thus creating in many cities the home-field advantage factor that was so missing in the league’s first decade.  As a result, however, is MLS also becoming yet another league in which teams are more than happy to escape most road games with a single point?  If that’s the case, it’s all the more reason for the league to take the necessary steps to foster a climate in which those large, loud and loyal followers go home happy on a more regular basis.

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DOCTOR SOCRATES

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, one of the stars of the 1982 and 1986 Brazilian World Cup teams that dazzled but ultimately disappointed, died at a Sao Paulo hospital of septic shock resulting from an intestinal infection.  He was 57.  His survivors include a wife and six children

Socrates captained the ’82 Brazil side that, needing only a tie to advance, lost a second-round match to Italy, 3-2, in Barcelona to become one of the greatest teams never to win a World Cup.  Socrates scored a brilliant goal in that game, and an even better one in a group-round victory over the Soviet Union.  Among those who exited with him were Zico, Falcao, Serginho, Oscar, Toninho Cerezo and Leandro.

Socrates scored 22 goals in 60 international appearances.  The midfield maestro’s club tally reads 207 goals in 396 matches, 172 of them for Corinthians, for whom he starred from 1978 to 1984.  He later played one season each in the late ’80s for Fiorentina, Flamengo and Santos.

Socrates was a true Renaissance man.  He studied medicine during his playing career and went on to practice in his hometown of Ribeirao Preto.  Politically active, he founded an opposition movement to Brazil’s then-ruling military government, and he became a popular soccer columnist and TV commentator.  At the time of this death, he was working on a novel.  [December 4]

Comment:  The 1983 South American Footballer of the Year and a member of Pele’s FIFA list of the top living players of the 20th century, Socrates is probably best remembered by a younger generation as the older brother of star midfielder Rai, a member of the 1994 World Cup champion Brazil team who was ignominiously deposed as skipper four years later. 

In his time, Socrates was the face of Brazilian style between the post-Mexico ’70 sag and the embrace of the Dunga-style grit and guile that produced world championships in 1994 and 2002.  At 6-foot-4, he thoughtfully surveyed the field from a high perch and would pry open an opposition’s defense with a wide variety of tools, most notably his trademark back-heeled pass.

With Brasil ’14 fast approaching, what’s disappointing is that the hosts, with luck, may win the next World Cup, but they won’t embody The Beautiful Game, they won’t do it with any player as elegant, as thoughtful as Doctor Socrates.