LA Galaxy vs. NYCFC: Is there too much focus on Designated Players?
CARSON, Calif. -- Bruce Arena leaned against a chain-link fence, and a wry smile creased his face. It's the kind of expression one sees from the L.A. Galaxy manager when he's asked a big-picture question that has little to do with the upcoming game, or coaching his team.
In this instance, he was being asked for his thoughts about Sunday's tilt between L.A. and New York City FC (3 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), and the accompanying star power that will be on display. In the Galaxy's white, blue and gold colors will be the likes of reigning MLS MVP Robbie Keane, and new arrivals Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard. NYCFC's Designated Player trio is equally impressive, consisting of World Cup winners David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, as well as Chelsea legend Frank Lampard.
"I don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about this," he said. "Certainly, it's a nice occasion for the league to have players that are recognized all over the world playing in this match."
Arena's focus on his side is understandable, but Sunday's encounter is a bit more than a "nice occasion." The passel of British media that have made the trip to L.A., not to mention the fact that the game is sold out and will be shown in over 150 countries, speaks to the attention the match is getting in North America and beyond.
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"The interest in this match is legitimate, it's authentic," MLS commissioner Don Garber said via telephone. "It's an important regular-season match for the Galaxy and NYCFC, and the interest has developed organically. The interest in this one is really driven by a bunch of big-name players and two clubs that really matter, not only locally but also nationally and internationally.
"We've talked a lot and worked hard to create interest in rivalries, and while the league is promoting the event, it's really happened on its own."
Yet the megawatt glare from the six DPs threatens to make the game itself almost an afterthought. Garber admitted that the international interest doesn't happen without teams using the DP rule to its maximum, especially in the most recent transfer window when the likes of Pirlo, Dos Santos and Didier Drogba (to the Montreal Impact) all came on board.
The match is important to the clubs, mind you. L.A. has been one of the hottest teams in the league of late, going 7-2-1 in its last 10 matches, and is well positioned to grab the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup double that eluded it last year. NYCFC is currently outside the playoffs places, and is desperate for points. With Pirlo now firmly ensconced in the side and Lampard close to a return from a calf injury, manager Jason Kreis is hoping his team can go on the type of run that will nick one of the last postseason spots.
But there has been talk in some circles about Sunday's match being historic -- a term that the league has overused in the past -- or that this is the advent of MLS 3.0, one of those "Where were you when..." moments.
Granted, this is the kind of spectacle that MLS has long craved, but big-name players are just one piece of the puzzle. The league has done well over the past 20 years to carve out its niche in an overcrowded North American sports market, as well as a television landscape in which soccer games from higher-profile leagues are beamed in from all over the world. Grabbing that mindshare of existing soccer fans and turning them into MLS fans has long been one of the league's biggest challenges. Matches such as Sunday's, with international stars on show, are another opportunity to draw those fans in.
The league must still tread lightly however, so that the search for sizzle doesn't come at the expense of the steak.
MLS has gotten to where it is by taking a slow and steady approach, building its foundation carefully and then adding to the structure brick by brick whether it's in terms of player development, stadiums or its selection of expansion markets. To be fair, there is plenty of evidence that MLS is aware of this need for balance.
Garber is quick to highlight the competitiveness of other teams such as Sporting Kansas City that have enjoyed success without relying on big-name DPs like L.A. and NYCFC have. The addition of the Targeted Allocation Money has also given teams more flexibility than in the past in terms of adding talented players. There will be continued back and forth on how best to construct a roster, even as that definition might vary from market to market, or from owner to owner.
"Every time we have an approach for competitive balance, I hear people say, 'We need more stars,'" Garber said. "Then when we get more stars, people say, 'What are you doing? You have too many star players in the league.'
"Our clubs are going to continue to put the best product on the field, and the owners will work together to provide the right roster rules so that we can have a product that can be attractive and compete for the hearts and minds of the soccer fan and soccer viewer in our region."
In terms of Sunday's match, there will be plenty of other players to watch. There is the chance to witness a rising star in NYCFC forward Kwadwo Poku, as well as promising L.A. players in Gyasi Zardes and Sebastian Lletget.
It is that combination of old and new, traditional names as well as emerging stars, that will create the kind of powerful wave to keep the league's momentum going well beyond Sunday's match.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.