There are certain benchmarks when one knows that your league or sport has become mainstream. Getting a television contract is one of them. Having labor negotiations that threaten the start of a season is another. But perhaps the most important marker that separates the top leagues from the rest of the pack are supporters ability to find interest in preseason matches.
Over a month ago, Major League Soccer started its twentieth season with pre-season training. Much like any other major sport either in the United States or abroad, teams went to warmer climates to drill, practice, and play in matches to get ready for the next season. The league will tout preseason matches and tournaments as being ‘can’t miss.’ But here is a little secret: they are meaningless.
There seems to be a disconnect that exists between supporters and the teams when watching these matches. While coaches and players obviously understand that these results have almost no importance to the season, many supporters seem to believe these matches do matter and that there are greater lessons that can be learned from watching two teams in an exhibition.
A thought came across my mind two weeks ago when I watched D.C. United play Orlando City SC in a preseason match in Florida: this must be how Real Madrid and Manchester United fans feel when they watch their team in preseason. Much like with the Manchester United-Real Madrid match in Detroit earlier in the year, the match was touted as being important and a must not miss.
While there is a certain level of excitement in that this is one’s first glimpse at the team for the new season, boredom settles in at about the 1 :01 mark in the first half. These teams are clearly works in progress with players who even the most hardcore supporter will have trouble recognizing. D.C. United had players in their match who weren’t even given names in the scorecard and were just called ‘trialists.’
It is not just MLS that suffers from the malaise of the preseason. Games like the aforementioned Real Madrid-Manchester United match are built up as being important. If this were the case then starters would play the full 90 minutes and players would not be jogging around the pitch.
Yes, a player could lose a starting spot by playing horrendous or by allowing an own goal. But the chances are managers at those levels of football know which players will make the roster and which one’s will sit before the first preseason match is even started.
Pre-season matches are not always boring and sometimes do feature moments of brilliance (like Miguel Aguilar’s goal for D.C. United last weekend against the Austin Austex). But by and large these matches are practice games, time for teams to figure out just who they are and what they can do. They aren’t meant to be entertaining nor are they meant to be examples of how the team will perform in 2015. They are scrimmages. Nothing more, nothing less.
There is another emotion that one can express when watching a preseason match and that is of course fear. Anytime two players go in for a 50-50 challenge there is one sentiment that both groups of fans have: do not get injured. Injuries in the preseason are by far the worst thing that can happen to a team because it essentially torpedoes any plans that the team established over the off-season.
One bad injury, like the broken leg that Toronto FC forward Bright Dike sustained last year, and a team could go from being on the cusp of a playoff spot to just another squad.
The key to following pre-season matches seems to be one of patience. Enjoy the games for what they are: an opportunity for kids to see MLS games at reduced prices, for lower division sides to try their best against stronger opposition, and for teams to win trophies with Armadillos on them.
The preseason has and will always be a special time for sports. It is a great opportunity for teams to get ready for the next season and provides countless hours mindless banter at the pubs for supporters. But to expect anything else out of glorified training matches is a bit of a reach and a bad idea when gauging how a team will do in the next season.