By Paul Gardner
I had to feel sympathy for MLS Commissioner Don Garber when the lights went out at the Home Depot. Not once, but twice -- and we got television shots of him in his luxury suite, talking into his cell phone, trying to show some mastery of a situation over which he had no control at all.
Embarrassing it must have been for him. To me it was merely irritating -- my concerns were rather different from Garber's. What worried me was not what was going on when the lights were out, but what was happening when they were on. When the Dynamo and the Galaxy, under full floodlights, were supposed to be giving us an exhibition of MLS soccer at its best.
Well, I think that statement is justified -- this was the conference final, after all. But the soccer was not fit for the occasion. Dismal stuff, inchoate and incoherent for the most, a game of grinding teeth and unremitting effort. Not worth watching.
In such a game you can guarantee that Dema Kovalenko will set the tone, It took only 13 minutes before he launched himself, studs up, into Stuart Holden's legs. In midfield, no danger threatening -- merely a nasty challenge because Kovalenko couldn't control the ball, and Holden stole it. A yellow-card offense if ever I saw one -- but here we go again -- referee Terry Vaughn didn't even call a foul, never mind give the card. A significant omission, as Kovalenko, inevitably, did get a yellow in the 77th minute.
The game, if that's what it was, was liberally sprinkled with 41 assorted fouls. Five of those came from Beckham -- a total that ought to have earned him a yellow for persistent infringement. Referee Vaughn spared the star.
Totally fitting that the winning goal should come from a Galaxy defender, with Gregg Berhalter prodding the ball into the net for what would be a top candidate for Worst Goal of the Year, should MLS have such an award. The insurance goal arrived in the form of a penalty kick -- (an occurrence that had seemed likely all game long) -- and gave Landon Donovan, whose skills had been lost in the suffocating banality of the evening, a momentary chance to get some attention.
Beckham, the other highly paid star, looks increasingly like the 34-year-old that he is, trying to pretend that he's still a 24-year-old, which he assuredly is not. It's still all about those long right-foot passes and crosses, but the accuracy is beginning to look suspect. As that wonderful skill declines, we get the battling, fouling, David instead, and a guy who finds it necessary to complain to the referee all the time.
Maybe Bruce Arena has some magic that can turn this assembly of geriatrics and adolescents into a worthy team in time for MLS Cup. But it seems unlikely.
Which leaves me thinking that the appeal and the marketability, to say nothing of the honor, of MLS will be in the hands, or at the feet, of Real Salt Lake come November 22nd.
RSL and Chicago gave us a game - a goalless game, as it happens - that was full of good soccer and without the unpleasant atmosphere that marred the Galaxy vs. Dynamo meeting. There were fouls -- 31 in total, 23 of them by RSL (six from Chris Wingert, who did get a yellow, though not for persistent fouling).
RSL is hardly a team full of innocents -- not with Kyle Beckerman leading the league with 10 regular-season yellows, and Jamison Olave sharing top spot with three reds. But the soccer was lively, attack-oriented and it flowed nicely. It was open enough for one to sense, from both teams, a suggestion that there were players out there who were actually liking what they were doing. The days of expecting pro soccer with a smile have, alas, been put behind us. Things have gotten too serious for that, and probably the most we can hope for is soccer that is enjoyable both for players and spectators alike, rather than a drudge for both.
The only thing that marred RSL's win was, of course, that it wasn't really a victory at all because it came via a shootout. That's the best soccer's rulemakers can do, so no blame attaches to RSL. MLS has been relatively lucky so far -- despite five of its 13 finals going to overtime, only one has sunk to the shootout level.
We may be heading for another one. RSL did not show any great facility for finishing, despite plenty of exciting approach play. As for the Galaxy -- well, we have been in no doubt for some time now that, defense is the important thing, and the "grinding out" of 1-0 wins apparently represents the acme of their costive approach.
Off we go to Seattle for a final that does not, which ever way you look at it, promise to be a sparkling one. It has been born from two overtime conference finals, four hours of soccer that failed to produce even one halfway decent goal.
This is a final that desperately needs a referee who will, right from the start, be harsh in his punishment of gratuitous physical play and of tactical fouling. I wish I could think of one to nominate, but the recent permissive performances of top MLS referees have left me without a viable candidate. In any case, is that what MLS wants? A tough referee who may well send someone off -- how can that be good for the final? In fact, players do not get red-carded in MLS Cup finals. So far that fate has descended on only one player -- surprise, surprise, who else but the fearsome Kovalenko? The promos and highlights shown on TV strongly suggest that mayhem, broken bones and blood are what the TV companies are looking for.
But ... nil desperandum. RSL, under the admirable Jason Kreis, has shown itself to be an enterprising bunch, not given to the cautious approach. And I do have some hope of the Galaxy turning on the style, a hope that rests entirely on one man -- Landon Donovan. Where there's Donovan, there's hope.