The annual YouTube streams of preseason tournaments with names like Desert Diamond Cup and Carolina Challenge Cup have become synonymous with MLS fandom, but can anything useful be learned from watching the meaningless games?
Count me in as interested in watching all kinds of obscure soccer. That might mean a Europa League qualifying match in some strange-sounding country on a really bad stream. In this case, it means less difficult to find YouTube streams of MLS preseason matches.
With each passing year my enjoyment at the spectacle, or lack thereof, stays the same. The thing that has changed this season is my beginning to question how much I can actually learn from these friendlies. When the Portland Timbers used three separate lineups against the Red Bulls a few days ago, just how much do those trialists matter in the grand scheme of an MLS season?
The more I thought about this question I realized that if I was going to continue to enjoy watching these matches, I had to find a reason to. Sure goofy meaningless trophies like this one are awesome for a club to win, but I just need more as my time becomes more valuable as I grow older.
So to answer that question I came up with a few distinct reasons to watch MLS preseason tournaments.
1.) Young stars
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These glimpses of playing time that new draft picks, homegrown, or just regular signings (if there is such a thing in MLS) can be very valuable in determining just how much of a contribution can be expected.
Context has to be given for each player and each situation. For example, in the Timbers v Red Bull match a fourth round draft pick was given an opportunity opposite Red Bull promising youngster Alex Muyl. Predictably, Muyl had a good time against the overmatched fourth rounder. That kind of situation isn’t what I’m talking about. When Muyl, who earned a spot in the starting eleven at times last season, goes against a more veteran player in the future that would be a better indication if he has progressed than against a guy who will be in the USL this season.
I can remember a few years ago watching young Wil Trapp for Columbus Crew SC play in the preseason. His style and calm demeanor on the ball was able to translate while playing against fellow first team opponents and I knew then that the Crew had a keeper of a defensive midfielder.
Frequently a manager will try out new tactics and formations in the preseason. Be it a player switching positions or a manager testing out different combinations within a new formation, watching preseason can help a fan not get caught off guard by switches that might happen during the first stretch of a season.
For my club, Columbus Crew SC, I’m excited to see if manager Gregg Berhalter will use a rumored three man backline. With the wild chopping and changing of the backline this offseason, many media members close to the team are speculating it might be in preparation of using a Chelsea like three man backline with wing-backs on the outside. The personnel makes sense for the change and preseason offers a perfect time to test out the formation.
3.) Old retreads
This might be my favorite part and might be a little MLS nerdy, but seeing if old MLS retreads can hold on one more year is the best. Freddy Adu is on trial with Portland and he played in the match against the Red Bulls and I’m excited to see how the newly signed Oguchi Onyewu plays for the Philadelphia Union.
It is unlikely that many of these players will ultimately matter much, but it also might be my last chance to see a former USMNT hero in Onyewu and so many others.
I’d encourage anyone to watch MLS preseason matches as they are a free opportunity to watch your favorite clubs take part in largely meaningless matches.