MLS teams show well in friendlies

STEVEN SANDOR -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

This is a funny time in the MLS, when non-league games are making more headlines than matches that actually mean something in the standings.

Four MLS clubs, including the L.A. Galaxy (with an injured Becks watching from the sidelines ... are you nervous yet about paying loads on EBay for those Galaxy/TFC tickets yet?) are involved in the SuperLiga, which pits them against four Mexican teams. Chelsea and Aston Villa are conducting part of their pre-season training with games against MLS clubs, including last week's tilt between Villa and TFC. And Celtic, as part of its preseason, faced the MLS All-Stars and, later, drew with the Chicago Fire.

While it's debatable how much effort foreign teams put into these games, the MLS clubs feel it's an important measuring stick on how they rate on the international footballing scene. And the results were positive: Chelsea only managed to beat the Galaxy 1-0; the All-Stars beat Celtic 2-0; Celtic drew Chicago 1-1; TFC's 4-2 loss to Villa came only after John Carew broke a 2-2 draw on a play that looked suspiciously offside; the fourth goal came right before the final whistle as TFC had pushed men forward. Villa overcame the Columbus Crew 3-1: again, not an embarrassing scoreline.

Fact is, as much as the European press like to put down the MLS -- the BBC recently referred to it as a standard the same as two leagues below England's Premiership -- those Euro teams can't show that kind of superiority on the field.

And, more and more, MLS grads are making the grade in Europe. Carlos Bocanegra is Fulham's best defender; DeMarcus Beasley has excelled at both PSV Eindhoven and Manchester City. Brian McBride has been a regular goal-scorer in his time with Everton and Fulham. And, Freddy Adu is in Lisbon, ready to put pen to paper on a deal with Benfica.

Does TFC have players who can make the jump? Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill admitted the jury is out. He said, because he was so focused on his club, that he couldn't identify any of his MLS opposition as possible EPL candidates. But, judging by the players the MLS has already sent to Europe, he thinks the sky is the limit for soccer in North America.

"This is an up-and-coming item,' said O'Neill. "If the league gets stronger, especially Toronto with its great fan support ... there's no reason it (a player making the jump) can't happen locally."

TFC, like its MLS brethren, are guilty of taking these friendlies too seriously. Two of the six regulars who will likely miss this weekend's game against the Galaxy -- Marvell Wynne and Ronnie O'Brien -- were hurt in the Villa game. And Danny Dichio aggravated his back problem by putting in some time against the English side. It's a fine line to toe; MLS teams want to show their fans that they can compete against these top international sides, but coaches know that by risking their top players in these games, they can pick up injuries that will affect their MLS seasons.

But we have to face the fact that friendlies aren't going to go away anytime soon. Beckham's presence in North America, with more European stars likely to follow, will ensure more international clubs will want to take on MLS teams.

"Beckham coming here can be a clarion call" for North American football, said O'Neill.

Villa's coaches and players said they loved everything about their North American experience, save for TFC's artificial turf. They want to come back; their visits could be regular tests of how far the MLS is progressing. But, this is for sure: North America's little league is a lot better than most Europeans want to admit.

24 hours sports editor Steven Sandor has written about the Beautiful Game for numerous publications around the globe. The Red Card will appear every Wednesday in 24 hours.


Photos