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Why RSL needs friendlies — for now

The old mantra, trophies not friendlies, is dead.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Los Angeles Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Remember back in, say, 2011? The mantra then was ‘trophies not friendlies,’ and frankly, it sounded really good.

We were competitive in CONCACAF Champions League, making it to the final that year. It was huge. You remember, right? We were the talk of the league, and for good reason.

For a few years, that mentality kept up. We made it back to Champions League contention, we competed for trophies, and we really deserved to keep that bumper-sticker-mantra. But when we declined in 2014, it came with a consequence: We started playing those friendlies we all talked about despising. What’s worse, though? They were kind of fun. I don’t mean they were necessarily fun in the pay-$500-a-ticket sense. Thankfully, most tickets haven’t been that expensive. And sometimes, they’ve been terribly stressful.

Of course, it’s not like we’ve played too many of them. We faced Xolos in August 2014, when we weren’t in CONCACAF contention. Our next international friendly came against Inter Milan last year, and this year, we’ve got Manchester United. It’s clear that we’re intending to follow this trend, and you know what? It’s hard to be upset about it.

That trophies-not-friendlies mantra only really works when you’re challenging for trophies. But when you stop doing that, the moral high ground is just lost. Neither this friendly nor last year’s actually made a palpable difference in the course of our season. If anything, they gave certain players a chance to impress.

Without last year’s Inter Milan exhibition, would we have seen Andrew Brody and Ricardo Velazco show up in a huge way against opposition that, on paper, shouldn’t have been even remotely tested by RSL? (Yes, preseason and midseason and all that — hence ‘on paper.’) They certainly might have continued looking excellent for Real Monarchs, but they might not have attracted broader attention in the organization. And while Brody is still playing for the Monarchs (expect him to play against United), Velazco not long after that match was in an RSL kit.

What these matches can do is provide players with an opportunity they simply wouldn’t have at other times in the season. I think it goes without saying that, barring the US Open Cup, there’s simply not a great time for Real Monarchs players to play in high-profile matches, even if they’re not competitive ones.

These friendlies provide an opportunity to evaluate a player in a markedly different context than the league in which they play. Is it entirely meaningful? Of course not. But does it provide another opportunity to evaluate a player? I’d think so.

We’re probably going to see these friendlies continue, supposing they continue to move tickets. It probably won’t actually be contingent on challenging for trophies, because now the precedent’s been set. Is it the approach we should be taking? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not entirely sold. But if we’re going to play these things, we might as well get something out of it. For me, that’s going to be getting a chance to see players in a semi-competitive environment who we simply wouldn’t otherwise see.