By Paul Gardner
The MLS playoffs are upon us, accompanied by various organizational hiccups that could be quite embarrassing. I’ll look at those in a moment, but first let me jump in immediately, with a suggestion to MLS that might help to reduce the red-face factor.
There is always an ominous cloud that hangs over the playoffs anyway. The cloud of caution. Low-scoring, tied games ... and the dreaded penalty kick shootouts as the tiebreaker. That’s the way that RSL won the title last year -- but, even though they were worthy winners, this is a rotten way to decide a championship.
I do have some thoughts about that. As it seems likely that we shall get a shootout or two during the playoffs, MLS should try to ensure that they are conducted fairly. What this means is that they should be closely monitored for goalkeeper movement.
Which leads me to suggest that MLS follow the lead of the UEFA Champions League and use a couple of extra officials -- the additional assistant referees, AARs, if not throughout the playoffs, then just for the final. The extra eyes of these “goal line” officials become particularly useful in the shootout.
That is my Helpful Suggestion to MLS (of course, you should know that I’m batting absolute zero on a whole string of previous suggestions).
Whatever, I am truly pleased to announce that the MLS playoff teams and matchups have now been decided, and that the situation is a tremendous mess that seems to satisfy no one. Except me, that is.
My main concern all along, ever since the announcement that the final would be played in Toronto, has been that absolutely nothing should be allowed to delay the games, and that maybe, somehow or other, they could even be advanced a week or two.
This was all based on my certain knowledge that Toronto on November 21 is wrong, both place-wise and time-wise, as a site for playing important finals. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the game is visited with a snow blizzard, or at least sub-zero temperatures.
No doubt there will be hardy Torontonians to tell me that I’m out of my mind, that BMO field will be bathed in balmy temperatures, and caressed by gentle zephyrs. Maybe. But I’ve been in Toronto in November, thank you.
There having been no delays, all is now set for the coldest MLS Cup yet. I’m reminded of baseball in 1971. Then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided (for television reasons, of course) that there would be a night-time World Series game for the first time ever. But this was tame stuff compared with MLS -- this was only halfway through October, and it was in Pittsburgh, well south of Toronto.
It was a chilly evening. But Bowie made his point with record viewing figures. He also tried to make a personal point by sitting outside without wearing a top coat, making an ass of himself trying to convince the world that it wasn’t really cold at all.
I suppose Don Garber now has the chance to repeat Kuhn’s thermal-underwear excursion, but I’m banking on Garber having too much common sense to go for it.
We have 11 games coming up, featuring eight teams. I really don’t care that much that the Western Conference has proved much stronger than the Eastern. Nor can I get too outraged by the possibility that the Eastern Conference champion might turn out to be a team from the west.
Evidently the playoff system has not been thought through that well. Aside from the possibility of a geographical absurdity there is the more worrying concern that the predominance of western teams has introduced an element of unfairness to the whole procedure. To have Seattle playing against the MLS team with the best regular season record (the Galaxy, with 59 points), while the two western clubs that finished below Seattle (San Jose and Colorado), face ostensibly weaker opponents (New York 51 and Columbus 50), sure doesn’t look like a great idea. I’d say that Sigi Schmid and his Sounders deserve better than that.
The favorites? Don’t be ridiculous. In MLS there are no favorites. Last year the winner turned out to be Real Salt Lake, the team with the worst qualifying record. The year before that New York -- a team that had never in its entire existence even looked like winning everything -- made its way to the final.
Maybe this is the way it should be -- for a league whose single entity-structure and strict salary caps are designed to prevent clubs from outspending each other, thus throttling the emergence of elite clubs. A system that has begun to creak and which has needed the oil of the Designated Players to stop it from grinding to a halt.
Money begins to speak in MLS. We have, this year, two obvious candidates for elite team status among the playoff qualifiers -- the New York Red Bulls, who have been spending a lot of money, on a sparkling new stadium, and by acquiring three DPs, and the Los Angeles Galaxy that spent a fortune on David Beckham. Despite the spending, it’s difficult to see either team as demonstrably better than the rest.
Anyway, when I pick my favorites, I’m choosing the teams that I consider play the best soccer. That rules out the Galaxy, who have been borderline-boring in most of the games that I have seen. The Red Bulls can play nice stuff, but as the playoffs have approached, they have lost their touch, particularly when playing at home, where their last three games have produced but three goals and not much excitement -- certainly not enough to match the superb atmosphere created by the fans.
For style, I’ll take Real Salt Lake, Dallas, San Jose and Seattle, in that order. Which means that my preferred final won’t happen, as RSL meets Dallas in the first round. I did mention that the playoffs are a mess, didn’t I?