By Paul Gardner
I would say that the American soccer community - that part of it that follows MLS, I mean -- has got the playoff contenders that it deserves.
The fight for places revealed a genuine Darwinian survival of the fittest contest -- and what is sport if not just that? Allow me to spend this column with the failures, the non-fittest teams that didn't make it.
I was sorry to see D.C. United fail at the last hurdle, for D.C. has been the team over the years that has set an important standard for MLS. A team that has proved a point: that it is possible to play a version of the sport that is, at one and the same time, both attractive and successful. A soccer that wins not only games and trophies, but that captures the aesthetic side of the sport as well -- that excites both the competitive and the artistic spirits. But not this season. D.C. have looked ordinary, and now it languishes with six other ordinary teams, on the outside looking in.
Along with them, the hopeless, hapless (but not for much longer, homeless) New York Red Bulls. Last year's finalists, this year's worst team. By quite a large margin. What happened? Given the almost incredibly feeble record of the MetroStars/Red Bulls throughout the entire 14 years of its history, last year can only be seen as a colossal fluke.
After the heady excitement of the 2008 final, coach Juan Carlos Osorio lost his way badly amidst a welter of poor signings that were designed to strengthen the team but ended up fatally wounding it. For next year, the new stadium in Harrison (and, yes, that's in New Jersey, as is everything else to do with this so-called New York team) will be splendid. The team ...? Who knows. The coach? Who knows. This franchise has tried just about everything -- a return to Cosmos days with Eddie Firmani; top, really top, foreign coaches with Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira and Portugal's Carlos Queiroz; top - really top -- American coaches with Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley; Latinos with Octavio Zambrano and Osorio. Nothing has worked. They are back to square one, and there is no logical next move.
It looks almost as sensible to say that interim coach Richie Williams and the roster of players who have looked so inadequate this past season should all stay -- with the hope that the excitement and drama of a new stadium will inspire them -- as it does to decide on a clean-out.
The hope, such as it is, lies in the desperation of that oldest of spirit-raisers ... the conviction that things can hardly get any worse.
Toronto failed for the third year running. Some coaching problems hear, obviously -- with John Carver walking out, and his replacement by another Brit, the inexperienced Chris Cummins, who proved to be not up to the task. As with the Red Bulls, one needs to explain the inexplicable -- how could Toronto, in the most important game of its season, lose 0-5 ... to the pathetic Red Bulls? It was sad to see Dwayne De Rosario hinting that players -- other players, of course -- had not given their all. Possibly. But on that final fatal rainy night, who looked good? De Rosario comforted himself with the thought that he did his best -- that's surely true, when has he ever done less? -- but it was nowhere near good enough.
So Cummins is out. Another new coach to be sought. But how odd that Mo Johnston, who has presided over all three years of Toronto futility, gets a vote of confidence.
Colorado was a case of another general manager appointing a coach who should not have been appointed -- Gary Smith -- whose idea of soccer is primitive, and whose team looked primitive all season but stayed afloat only because of Casey Connor's goalscoring feats ... and then, like Toronto, folded badly in its final, crucial game. A new coach is needed here, too.
San Jose -- well, we didn't expect much from them, but we did occasionally get some pretty good soccer from them. Not enough, and not consistently enough, to save them, but Frank Yallop surely did enough to warrant keeping his job. A job that was certainly made more difficult by front-office uncertainties about the club's future.
The same sort of problems that faced Kansas City. It doesn't seem too convincing that difficulties like that should be reflected on the field, but maybe that's what happens. So Kansas felt obliged to get rid of Coach Curt Onalfo in mid-season. That didn't work (indeed, one wonders if sudden mid-stream changes ever do actually accomplish anything), nor did the interim reign of Peter Vermes. But this looks like a team with plenty of talent and spirit. A proper stadium would help, of course.
Dallas has just that, a state of the art soccer stadium, a lasting tribute to the lasting belief in soccer of Lamar Hunt. But, not unlike the MetroStars/Red Bulls, Dallas has never been able to field a winning team. Of course Schellas Hyndman's coaching credentials are still under close inspection -- college experience is not necessarily a guide to competence at the pro level. Or not instant competence, anyway.
But Dallas' failure -- like that of D.C., Toronto and Colorado -- came in a crucial final game. All four of those teams could have won their do-or-die games -- indeed, pre-game wisdom would have favored them. All flunked the test, Toronto disastrously, Colorado pathetically, D.C. agonizingly and Dallas frustratingly.
That needs some explaining. A collective coaching collapse -- how likely is that? No, I put it down to a weakness in the sport itself, a weakness that also happens to be the lasting strength of the sport: with soccer you just never know.