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  • Is the Major International Friendly Worth It?


    On Thursday, as all not living under a rock will know, the Vancouver Whitecaps announced the long-rumoured Major International Friendly against Manchester City. Manchester City, for those who aren't aware, is a team in the English "Premier" League and isn't even the biggest soccer team (or "football club" as they call it) in their city. I think it's nice of the Whitecaps to give a struggling young club a leg up, though I wonder why we had to do it mid-season.

    Okay, now seriously.

    Obviously Manchester City is an illustrious opponent. While they're not Barcelona or Liverpool, out of all the "second-tier" teams in Europe they might be the most interesting. They have a lot of talented players, a lot of hubbub in the media because of their ownership and high-priced approach to building a team. Their style of play would be attractive on the temporary grass of Empire. And Terry Dunfield is probably going to strain something in his excitement to play against the club that developed him, put him in an English Premier League game, and was actually very good to him for a lot of years.

    There's quite a bit of anticipation in town for the Whitecaps playing City. Casual fans and even a few of the hardcores are looking forward to it. It's a free game for season ticket holders and, cleverly, the Whitecaps are including the game in new season ticket packages sold until the end of April; it might just be the biggest, baddest season ticket bonus ever. The team is sure to sell a few more 2011 season tickets now, and both the front office bean counters and the ordinary fan can be happy about that. At the same time, it gives the Whitecaps a ferociously difficult schedule, with the Monday game taking place between one on Saturday at home and one on Wednesday in San Jose, California. Vancouver may well be fighting for their playoff lives by then and could find the Manchester City friendly a most inopportune distraction.

    The question then becomes: is it worth it?


    Most die-hard fans of Major League Soccer have long inveighed against the mid-season friendly. They say (quite correctly) that such games negatively affect the teams, crowd an already-heavy schedule, and don't do much to bring in new fans while furthering the perception that MLS is a "Mickey Mouse" league - look at the Yanks, they actually bring in our teams during the pre-season just to give their poor fans some proper football to watch.

    On the other hand, when executed properly it can bring in both fans and attention. Canadian soccer fans from coast to coast mocked seemingly-serious declarations that the Toronto FC - Real Madrid friendly of 2009 was the "game of the year", but it did bring in an unprecedented amount of attention. Die-hard supporters criticized the ticket prices and the fact that it wasn't included for season ticket holders, but Toronto did pretty well at the gate regardless. And, in spite of all those question marks and a predictably one-sided 5-1 Real Madrid victory, the game was still memorable (and not just for Gabe Gala).

    Did Toronto bring in any new fans of MLS soccer? Well, losing 5-1 couldn't have helped their cause. But we're still talking about it and it's not like Toronto looked like a bunch of amateurs out there; a lot of La Liga sides have been embarrassed by that team worse than Toronto was that night. If even 1% of the fans who showed up or tuned in just for that meaningless friendly wound up hooked on Toronto FC, than it might have been worthwhile.

    On the other hand, Toronto FC scheduled their Real Madrid friendly much more intelligently. The game took place on August 7, 2009, three days after their final CONCACAF Champions League qualifying game against Puerto Rico but a week before their next league game (a game they won 2-0 at home to D.C. United). The Whitecaps schedule is much more crowded. And, to state the obvious, Manchester City is a much less illustrious opponent than Real Madrid. Vancouver may be handling the ticketing for their friendly better than the Toronto front office did, but Toronto was in a much better position on the field.

    Ultimately, we don't know whether this Manchester City friendly will be a success or not. It depends on how many new season ticket holders this signs up, how many fans for one game are converted into fans for life, and whether the Whitecaps can hold it together in the two regular season games around the friendly. I'm apprehensive about the risks, and my instinct is that the rewards aren't that great. But only time will tell.

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