I was recently asked -- by a foreign newspaper -- a number of questions about MLS. Pretty straightforward stuff about players and coaches to which I supplied brief, mostly accurate, answers. I romped along, without too much hesitation, until I came to the final question. That, too, was actually pretty straightforward, the simplest of questions: who will win the 2009 MLS Cup?
Or it would have been straightforward had this been any league other than MLS. A few moments thought convinced me that the best answer was "How the hell do I know?" I settled instead for "Are you kidding?" Another nicely brief answer, but one that I felt obliged to explain.
It took several longish paragraphs to cite the Byzantine twistings and turnings of the unique single-entity structure, and how this made predictions difficult -- and to underline that "difficult" became "impossible" once the playoff system was taken into account.
I mean -- take last year. How many people picked Columbus (Columbus fans are disqualified from answering)? Come to that, who on earth could possibly have foreseen a Columbus vs. Red Bulls final? No one, not anyone I'm aware of, did. Certainly no one in the Soccer America office did. The opinion of the three top guys there -- who shall be nameless -- was that Columbus would finish either bottom or next to bottom in the Eastern Conference.
Ha! -- I can feel a bit superior to all that, but only because I prefer not to do predictions in soccer, which invariably seem to turn out wrong for all the right reasons, or right for all the wrong reasons. In a sport where most games are decided by a single goal -- and where that goal can come from just one error by a defender, or a moment of brilliance by an attacker, never mind the contributions from the referee and the weather and the field surface and so on -- who would want to be making predictions?
So there are plenty of good reasons why the sport of soccer itself is not fertile ground for fortune-tellers. When you add in the special situations that MLS brings with it -- well, forget it, all bets are off.
With its salary cap, MLS attempts to do what other soccer leagues do not -- to impose some sort of parity. Leaving aside any argument as to whether that's good thing or a bad thing, you'd have to say that the scheme has worked pretty well so far. The 13 finals played have featured 10 clubs, with seven different winners.
Obviously, when you go seeking parity, you are going to make it mighty difficult for a dynasty to emerge. In the opening four years of MLS, no one told D.C. United about that, and the club began to show dynastic tendencies -- which were pretty quickly crushed, and are not much talked about these days. Houston looked, for a brief couple of seasons that it might turn into a dynasty, but last season those notions were shattered in the most humiliating way -- I mean, a 3-0 home loss to the Red Bulls?
Is MLS better off without a dynasty or two? Or does it need a new version of the Cosmos, the club they all want to play, all the fans want to see, but everyone wants to beat?
When Alexi Lalas moved into New York for his brief stint as GM of the MetroStars, he immediately announced the intention to form a "super club." That pronouncement did not go down well with other owners in the league, for reasons which were obscure to me at the time.
It has since occurred to me that the creed of parity had by then assumed religious proportions, and Lalas's ambition was viewed with horror because it was nothing short of heresy. Or it might simply have been that the idea of the MetroStars, the infamous RotMasters, being linked to the word "super" was an insult to everyone's intelligence.
For the foreseeable future, MLS will have to do without dynasties. Does anyone expect Columbus to now set off on a chain of MLS Cup victories? Maybe we did, for a moment or so, believe that the Galaxy, led by what's-his-name, would emerge as an all-conquering glamour-team, but that idea very quickly died the death, didn't it ever.
All of this makes MLS unique. Because in all the other major soccer leagues you can, before the season, pick out two, three or four clubs and confidently say that the winner will come from that group.
Not in MLS. The 2009 season looms and cluelessness reigns. When clubs start patting themselves on the back for narrowly beating college teams in preseason, you know that none of it means a damn thing.
Frankly, I'd say that newcomers Seattle and not-quite newcomers Toronto (after two years of Brit-induced banality) have as good a chance as any club of winning the whole thing. And that is not to be construed as a prediction.