Don't rely on anything in soccer. Whenever you think you've got the sport sorted out, it strikes back with a sly sucker punch that flattens your theories. Just one year ago, the SuperLiga was a success at every level -- good games, good soccer, good crowds, good atmosphere -- and a good USA vs. Mexico (Galaxy vs. Pachuca) final. This year, things have been rather different. For a start the Mexicans have not exactly covered themselves with glory. Both their semifinalists -- Atlante and Pachuca -- turned inexcusably nasty at the end of their games. There can be no excuse for the way their players behaved in the face of defeat.
Yes, they did tend to get the short end of a number of bad referee decisions (notably, the penalty given to the New England Revs against Pachuca, and an awful offside call that cost Pachuca a crucial goal against the Dynamo) ... but so what? That's the way calls go on the road -- and the Mexicans knew before they joined in that all their games were to be road games.
Goalscoring has dwindled, too. Last year's 15 games saw a total of 42 goals -- nearly 3 per game. This year, so far in 14 games, we have only 32 goals. But those stats should probably not be taken too seriously because nearly a quarter of last year's goals came in one game -- the Galaxy's extraordinary 6-5 win over Dallas.
This year there is to be no international rivalry in the final. Tuesday's game is an all-MLS event that features the two teams that no one wanted to see facing each other yet again. The Revs and the Dynamo. The final from hell. We've seen this before -- twice.
This is MLS Cup 2006 and 2007 revisited, and there's no one who particularly wanted to make that trip again. You can argue -- with plenty of justification -- that the match-up proves conclusively that these are the best two teams in MLS. Which is a chastening thought. That things are all in place for MLS Cup 2008 to be yet another Dynamo vs. Revs affair doesn't bear thinking about.
The problem being that both those MLS Cup finals, best teams or no best teams, were stinking awful games. Is there any chance that a third championship-game meeting between the two culprits can produce anything other than yet another grim dose of sterile non-soccer?
Very little. The law of averages, whatever that is, suggests that three yawners in a row is unlikely. And the 2007 game was marginally better than the 2006 game, so maybe things are heading in the right direction.
Beyond that, the outlook is grim. The source of most of the boring soccer, it needs to be said, is the Revs. Steve Nicol's team seems to be unable to play in an important game without virtually seizing up. I had almost convinced myself that things would be different this time, because the game is to be played on the Revs' home field, and that therefore the Revs fans would roar their team on to abandoning their costive approach. But then I recalled the 2005 MLS Cup -- which also had the Revs playing at home, but which they lost 1-0 to the Galaxy in a game that was even worse than either of the finals against Houston.
Defense seems to be the Revs' strength -- they have given up only one goal in their four Superliga games. But that doesn't quite fit. The Revs are not a defensive team, they do not sit back and play defense. They buzz busily about, they do go forward -- they just don't know how to score. So far their four 2008 Superliga games have produced only four goals, just one per game. And of those four, one came on a 97th minute penalty kick, two resulted from set plays -- and only one came from game action. All very odd -- especially when one considers that Nicol's assistant is Paul Mariner, who was a pretty good goalscorer in his playing days.
Houston has a done a lot better, scoring 10 goals. So it sounds like a battle between the Houston offense and the Revs defense -- a sure recipe for another low-scoring game.
Then again, maybe not. I have been working on the matter, and this is what I've come up with. While the absence of defensive rock Michael Parkhurst (on Olympic duty) might, on the face of things, suggest that Nicol will want to be even more cautious, I'm relying on it doing something rather different. I've decided that no Parkhurst means a shaky defense that cannot be trusted not to leak goals. That will mean that the Revs know that their usual scoring rate of one-goal-per-game will not be enough. And so the Revs will have to go looking for goals and we shall see the Revs as we've never seen them before, playing open, flowing attacking soccer ... maybe I'm getting carried away here. I'm not so sure about that last bit.
Whatever, those are my hopes for the salvation of a game that, right now, is securely positioned as one that no one in his right mind would want to waste time watching. Except that plenty of people will watch. I shall, for start. In the hope -- almost a certainty! -- that things just have to be better this time.