Why MLS is Not Immune From Match Fixing
Joe Thomas is a (fictional) 23 year old defender who is in his second year playing in MLS. He was drafted out of a local university in the second round. He is from a blue collar family and his father was laid off his longtime manufacturing job four years ago; Joe would not have been able to attend college without the soccer scholarship. He was drafted in the second round and thus makes the MLS minimum salary. Because of attrition and his solid play, Joe starts the first game of the 2013 season at center back and, over the next few games, plays well enough to establish himself as a starter for a team that looks to just good enough to fight for the fifth playoff spot this year.
One night at a local college bar’s dollar beer night, Joe meets an attractive coed named Alana. They hit it off and over the next few weeks spend a lot of time together whenever Joe’s in town. Eventually she introduces him to her brothers who work, well, somewhere. They seem like deadbeats but Alana is a really nice girl. The season continues, Alana and Joe grow closer, and Joe continues to start for an MLS team that eventually settles in seventh, just barely in the playoff race. However, after overachieving a year ago, the team is still playing in the CONCACAF Champions League.
September comes, and one day after training Alana texts Joe to call her. She’s crying and asks him to come over immediately. When he comes over, the whole story spills out - one of her brothers made an ill-advised illegal bet on a few baseball games and lost a ton of money he didn’t have. They’re in bad shape - his bookie has already threatened physical violence. He needs to make some money fast. Joe offers his meager savings but it’s not enough. However, Joe’s team is playing that day. Alana explains that MLS gambling is very small overseas but it’s enough that if Joe’s team loses by a goal, her brother will win enough money gambling via some Asian websites to hold off the bookie. It’s as easy as a small slip when the opponent is threatening if the game is tied.
Joe obviously has concerns. His team mathematically is in the playoff hunt and he personally abhors the idea of throwing a game. But to be honest his team is out of the playoffs and besides, the coach is resting their best players for the midweek Champions League game. The game is practically meaningless. So in the 86th minute of a tie game, Joe slips on the torn up turf to leave the opponent’s striker open for the game winning goal. The turf was bad so no one thought anything of it.
After a night of celebrating, Alana calls Joe. She thanks him profusely but is still concerned. Her brother’s debt is still pretty heavy but the gambling action on that week’s CCL game is pretty substantial. The action is swinging towards Joe’s team, so a bet on the opponent would be pretty lucrative. Their opponent is a Central American team with a pair of fast strikers, so Joe could easily lose a step on one of them and give up a goal without raising any suspicions, Alana claims. Also, if her brother wins his bets, there’s a cut in there for Joe. And hasn’t he wanted to buy her a diamond ring and a home for the two of them?
Joe plays along and his team ends the season in sixth and out of the Champions League. Despite some late season struggles in some major games, Joe is beginning to attract some attention. He gets a pay bump and some national team chatter. In the offseason, he trains with an EPL team. During a trip home for the holidays, Alana’s brother introduces Joe to a friend from Singapore who is a big sports fan. He thinks he and Joe can become mighty big friends, especially if Joe’s loan move works out….
Allegedly the match-fixing scandal that rocked the rest of the world has already touched U.S. shores. In a league and country where soccer is not a lucrative endeavor for most people all it takes is an interested gambling syndicate and an ignorant oversight system for the same problems causing doubts overseas to potentially impact our domestic game. Do I think the above scenario is a likely one? Maybe not. But as the example shows, the need for money and having a gambling ring play with a player’s emotions is enough to get in if the MLS/CCL becomes a lucrative enough bet.