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One theory for MLS failures in Champions League

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A few years ago I wrote critically and frequently about Major League Soccer’s chief flaw on the field. That is, the faulty element most guilty of holding back the league from achieving better quality between the white lines (i.e., MLS imperfection on the field, not in marketing matters).

It was simply that too many matches didn’t matter. When 80 percent or 60 percent of teams make the playoffs (MLS first decade or so), every single match simply was not important enough. That tolerance for imperfection infected everything, from daily practices to match-day management. Mistakes weren’t punished sufficiently, so the drive to improve individually and collectively suffered.

It’s gotten better, of course, but the math still works in opposition to genuine, night-in, night-out, down and dirty competitiveness. Simply put, each individual match does not drip with the weight of importance as it should.

Making the playoffs is still the brick and mortar of Major League Soccer from a competitive standpoint. And more than half the teams still qualify (10 of 19). So there is still not enough “gotta have it” for each contest.

The basic league structure is just too forgiving in terms of individual match importance; too many contests cannot be earnestly stamped “Code Red Critical!”

When MLS teams get themselves into Champions League seriousness, they aren’t quite equipped to deal tactically, emotionally or intelligently when it comes to one match (or a pair of them) that simply must be had.

We saw it twice last week, as Seattle couldn’t properly manage a home match against Santos Laguna. Left in a 1-0 hole, last night’s 1-1 draw in Mexico was insufficient.  Santos advances into the CONCACAF Champions League final; MLS misses another chance.

The LA Galaxy conceded two goals late against Monterrey, and the chances of something heroic tonight in Mexico do not look good. At all.

Quality depth in the rosters (better on the Mexican side) has a lot to say about this ongoing imbalance, as Mexican sides continue to dominate the regional tourney.

But the lenient playoff qualification standards still hinder MLS progress. We saw it last year as clubs that finished fourth and fifth in their conferences made the MLS Cup final. LA was about as bad it could be in March, April and May … and still won the championship.

When a smaller percentage still of Major League Soccer teams make the playoffs, every match will ring the bell of importance. Organizations and individuals will know that a match in April, May, June, etc. should carry all the serious weight of a stretch-run contest in September. Only then will the best practices of approaching a match and managing out matches become muscle memory for MLS players, coaches and clubs.

Until then, well, we’ll just have to enjoy a few more all-Liga MX CONCACAF Champions League finals.

Premier League AT HALF: Arsenal fights back, Hull City on top

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal (L) and Francis Coquelin of Arsenal (R) celebrate after Theo Walcott of Arsenal (not pictured) scored Arsenals first goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Stoke City at the Emirates Stadium on December 10, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Goals and controversial penalty decisions are a big part of Saturday morning’s quartet of Premier League matches, all of which are at the break.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ]

Arsenal 1-1 Stoke City

Joe Allen took an elbow from Granit Xhaka inside the 18, and Lee Mason awarded a PK that Charlie Adam converted to give the visitors an early lead. But Theo Walcott scored his 100th goal as a Gunner off a classy Hector Bellerin cross to make it 1-1 before the break.

Burnley 2-1 Bournemouth

The Cherries will have to dig out of another hole this week, and it all began with Jeff Hendrick‘s phenomenal opener. Fellow Irishman Steven Ward scored an economical to goal to double the lead.

But Ryan Fraser continued his fine December with an assist on Benik Afobe‘s goal before halftime.

Hull City 1-0 Crystal Palace

Robert Snodgrass drew a penalty with a pretty easy grass grab, and the Tigers have a

Swansea City 0-0 Sunderland

Not much cooking at the Liberty Stadium.

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Koeman: “Nervous” Everton has a problem after another loss

WATFORD, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10:  Ronald Koeman manager of Everton arrives prior to the Premier League match between Watford and Everton at Vicarage Road on December 10, 2016 in Watford, England.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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One win in 10 for Ronald Koeman‘s Everton has the Dutchman on the hot seat.

Koeman seems to be clawing for air after the Toffees’ latest setback, a 3-2 loss at Watford.

The loss puts the Hornets ahead of Everton on the PL table, and — while unlikely — it’s a mathematical possibility that the Toffees could be a bottom half team by the end of the weekend.

[ STREAM: Every PL game on NBC Sports ]

That’s a brutal development for a club expected to challenge for a European place this season.

Here’s Koeman:

“I see a lot of similar problems in the team. The team is too much reactive. Of course it’s maybe a lack of confidence, but if you start the game well, 1-0 up, you need a bigger belief in the team and not going back and defending, and nervous, and not enough ball possession. In my opinion that’s a problem.”

A big problem with that? It can be put down to the manager. Is Koeman in trouble already?

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VIDEO: Hendrick scores incredible volley from distance

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Jeff Hendrick, take a bow.

Burnley’s Republic of Ireland international midfielder pulled off a stunning piece of skill on Saturday to put the Clarets ahead against Bournemouth.

[ STREAM: Every PL game online ] 

A long ball forward was flicked on to Hendrick and he took a stunning first touch to tee himself and then settled himself before spanking a volley into the top corner.

Sensational goal from Burnley’s club-record signing.

Click play on the video above to watch it.

Messi’s latest goal dares you to count the touches (video)

PAMPLONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 10:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the La Liga match between CA Osasuna and FC Barcelona at Sadar stadium on December 10, 2016 in Pamplona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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There’s a danger in observing Lionel Messi on a week-by-week basis, and it has a lot to do with how he makes greatness look routine.

So while it’s easy to dismiss yet another mazy dribble through a defense, one of those “Frogger” style with calm-but-vicious cutbacks, try to consider everything that goes into Messi’s second goal against Osasuna early Saturday.

[ MORE: Watford 3-2 Everton ]

On first look, you might count 9 touches for Messi starting with his right-footed collection of the ball. But move to the slow motion replays, and recognize the truth: Often Messi is letting the ball do the work for him, essentially moving the duo closer to goal while he used his preferred left foot as a must-respect threat.

That he does it in such traffic and at full speed is incredible. It’s literally one of those goals in which a linguistic luminary like Ray Hudson would have trouble over-emphasizing the greatness.

Messi now has 11 La Liga goals in 12 matches, and 22 in 19 overall.

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