Weak Product Undermines MLS Rivalry Week

Written by Ian Thomson
Columbus Crew fans await their team's "Steven Lenhart Derby" against San Jose Earthquakes.
Columbus Crew fans await their team’s “Steven Lenhart Derby” against San Jose Earthquakes.

Major League Soccer has never claimed to be among the best leagues on the planet, though it is beginning to set the gold standard in aggrandizement along with its broadcast partner NBC Sports.

Ten hours of continuous NBC air time was devoted to Saturday’s first ever “Rivalry Week.” Seven games including noted clashes in Canada and the Pacific Northwest were kicked off by the New York Red Bulls’ historic battle with D.C. United that dates back to the league’s inauguration in 1996. The pretence of bad blood between Columbus Crew and San Jose Earthquakes was, like much of NBC’s self-congratulatory coverage, difficult to digest.

American sports fans can be broadly categorized into four groups when it comes to soccer:

  • MLS diehards that defend the league at all costs and take umbrage with any criticism aimed in its direction.
  • Those that support MLS but would prefer its growth to derive naturally from improved standards on the field.
  • European and Latin American soccer fans that dismiss MLS, rightly or wrongly, for being substandard.
  • Others with no interest in the game.

It is highly unlikely that Saturday’s televised circus altered anyone’s stance.

Parachutists and the ritual butchering of the national anthem opened proceedings at Red Bull Arena, while NBC’s lead commentator Arlo White asked if the third week of the MLS regular season was about to serve up “a game for the ages.” He was just getting started. Former Everton midfielder Tim Cahill soon became the prism through which White invented parallels between the New York vs. D.C. fixture and the 119-year-old Merseyside derby in his native England.

The obvious flaw in NBC’s grandstanding is that it needs substance to back it up. Neither team produced more than a sniff of that being the case. Swedish defender Markus Holgersson’s first touch and passing shared a propensity for landing 10 yards from his intended destination, while Thierry Henry’s movement suggested cryogenic freezing was more suited to the melodramatic Frenchman than a ProZone heat map. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the Red Bulls’ Northern Irish midfielder Jonny Steele had previously turned out for Barcelona and Real Madrid rather than the Syracuse Salty Dogs and defunct six-a-side outfit Philadelphia KiXX (with a capital XX) given the nonstop proclamations of greatness.

Ben Olsen’s D.C. United sat surprisingly deep, looking content to earn a point by allowing New York to waste its possession. The plan worked, but only just. Fabian Espindola smacked two efforts against Bill Hamid’s crossbar, and MLSsoccer.com’s writers were left engineering a phony controversy to deflect from 90 minutes of dire fare when Hamid clawed an injury-time chance from his goal line.

Sporting Park in Kansas City was the next destination for another bout of anthem-killing from a performer reared at the Mariah Carey School of Extraneous Squealing. Her delivery was slower than New York’s central defense, no doubt adding to the manufactured tension between Sporting Kansas City and Chicago Fire. Another 90 minutes of tedious, scoreless play followed, punctuated only by Sporting head coach Peter Vermes’ weary complaints about the opposition refusing to let his team to walk the ball into the net unopposed.

NBC Sports hints on Twitter that Saturday's MLS rivalries may lack authenticity.
NBC Sports hints on Twitter that Saturday’s MLS rivalries may lack authenticity.

NBC’s groundbreaking “MLS Whip Around Show” debuted at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time, five hours into its coverage. American football fans likened the concept to the NFL’s “RedZone” channel that jumps between simultaneous games when a touchdown seems imminent. Predicting a score is easier when a football team has first down within 10 yards of its opponent’s end zone than it is when a soccer team approaches the 18-yard box.

European broadcasters use similar formats to entertain soccer fans, but again there are fundamental differences working in their favor that hampered NBC’s attempts. “Soccer Saturday” on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom couples in-studio pundits with reporters at England’s Premier League and lower-tier games that feed back relevant talking points from dozens of venues. NBC’s White and sidekick Kyle Martino were left enthusing over the remaining 25 minutes in Montreal, one half in Philadelphia and the games in Columbus and Salt Lake City. A fear of dead air left them sensationalizing every standard play and inflicting aural torture on the audience.

“I’d love to get inside the mind of Eddie Johnson,” gushed White as attention switched to the main event between Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. Wouldn’t we all?

The Sounders raised the bar in pre-game pomposity by inviting composer and Seattle Pacific University director Dr. Stephen Newby to conduct a baffling rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Newby earned his doctorate title through his studies in musical arts rather than medicine, offering little comfort to those at CenturyLink Field suddenly contemplating a remedy.

This was what we’d all be waiting for, NBC’s presenters spouted. The biggest rivalry among all of MLS’ riveting rivalries to end Rivalry Day – a day on which everyone appeared contractually bound to growl the word “rivalry” at 15-second intervals.

Long-suffering viewers were finally treated to the first goal from the day’s three scheduled live games after 193 insipid minutes when Johnson edged Seattle in front. It arrived, predictably, from a gaffe. Steve Zakuani galloped into 40 yards of space down Seattle’s left wing to set up Johnson’s tap-in after inadvertently being sent clear by Timbers midfielder Diego Chara’s errant lay-off.

NBC Sports promotes the "must-see TV" being broadcast on the channel.
NBC Sports promotes the “must-see TV” being broadcast on the channel.

Portland salvaged a point in the closing seconds to bring an underwhelming Rivalry Day to a close. Ten goals had been scored in total across the seven games. Two arrived from the penalty spot. Two came from corner kicks. Two resulted directly from horrendous mistakes. It was not a great day for attractive soccer as cheap turnovers littered every game, yet reality played no part in NBC’s script. The broadcaster moved beyond putting lipstick on the pig to smearing the swine in foundation, blush, mascara and eye shadow.

Any follower of MLS recognizes that the league is capable of producing high quality, exciting battles. Most will freely admit that it also serves up oodles of disappointing snoozefests. It shares this trait with every other soccer competition in the world. NBC’s incessant portrayal of MLS as something that it is clearly not creates a credibility gap matching the league’s boasts that it holds the seventh highest average attendance in world soccer.

If you believe either organization, you’ll believe that over 22,000 people showed up for Saturday’s home opener at Red Bull Arena.

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