For many, the mid-season friendly has jumped the shark.
There was a time when the practice was perfect for MLS. Teams this side of the Atlantic needed a reason to get the casual fan to try the product and big time European teams needed what amounted to pre-season cannon fodder to get their squad tuned up for the regular season. Where we used to get Chelsea and Manchester United, we now get relegated Wigan Athletic and Stoke City, a team known for it's cold Tuesday nights and long throws on stateside tours.
But hear me out, the practice isn't completely useless yet.
In a little while, the Red Bulls will face off against Olympique Lyonnais. If you watched Saturday's destruction of the Montreal Impact on MSG, Shep Messing told you "it's anything but" a friendly. That might not be the case -- and Lyon isn't the team they used to be, no matter how many times you say "seven-time French champions" -- but this friendly could be useful for the Red Bulls.
In the last three weeks we saw the Red Bulls shed a young, unknown quantity (Rafinha), an aging legend (Juninho) and a sickly journeyman defender (Digao, reportedly, anyway) and add what they hope becomes their answer on the back line (Ibrahim Sekagya).
Certainly, Mike Petke will want to kick the tires on Sekagya, but with a game this weekend against Toronto FC -- one where the team can get back on track after a few rough games -- the big names likely won't play more than a half. That gives the Red Bulls a chance to see guys like Ruben Bover, Marius Obekop, Matt Miazga, Michael Bustamante and Amando Moreno outside of reserve games. Ian Christianson, hurt for most of the season with a broken bone in his foot, will probably get a look, too. Ryan Meara has only played Open Cup games and hasn't really had a legitimate test yet and Kevin Hartman hasn't played at all.
In prior years the Red Bulls always had a number of players who seemed to be there to take up space rather than serve some kind of purpose. Every player in the above paragraph is there because they have potential, even Hartman, though his potential is along the touchline as a coach. Tonight they play against a decent side in Lyon, on TV, in the main event at Red Bull Arena. It's valuable experience for them and it's a chance for us to see them in action.
With the summer transfer window smack-dab in the middle of the MLS season, mid-season friendlies are still a chance for teams to kick the tires on some younger guys and some new additions. Case in point, last season's friendly against Tottenham Hotspur was Tim Cahill's debut in a Red Bulls kit and I'd say it was good foreshadowing.
The league may have come a long way from when the Kansas City Wizards beating Manchester United was a shock, but the summer friendly still serves a purpose, even if the competitors are shrug-worthy.