MLS Cup 2011 may be a harbinger of the future: the highest-seeded team to reach the final, the Los Angeles Galaxy, will host it Sunday against Houston.
Months ago the league announced Home Depot Center as the venue for MLS Cup, and by rolling through the regular season to win the Supporters’ Shield and holding serve in the playoffs -- three straight wins, two at HDC -- the Galaxy has earned the right to play on its home field in front of its own fans.
MLS Cup 2011 might be the last held at a pre-designated site. Commissioner Don Garber has mentioned several times during the season of strong sentiment among league and team executives of granting the higher-seeded playoff survivor to host the final. If this is done, a key issue will be whether the league takes a two-week break between the conference finals and MLS Cup, as was done this year to avoid conflict with the FIFA international fixture dates, or revert to the one-week break it has normally used under the current format.
The additional week would allow away fans more time, and probably better rates for flights and hotels, to make the trip, though the distances and costs could be considerable if Philly was to play in Seattle, or vice versa. Yet one of the many encouraging trends of the past few MLS seasons is a greater contingent of fans traveling to playoff games, and especially MLS Cups, on short notice.
I didn‘t know what to expect at MLS Cup 2009, hosted by Seattle in its expansion season and contested by two Western Conference rivals, Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake.
I’m not talking about tactics or player selection, and certainly not the outcome, but rather the atmosphere, the aura, the buzz: in a big, “neutral” stadium, would there be any?
As disappointed as the Sounders fans were for their team not to make the final, I knew they’d show up for the league’s showcase event in their stadium, then known at Qwest Field. Unlike many MLS teams, even those well-established, Seattle’s fans had proven week after week, month after month, they would come out to see the Sounders for league games, U.S. Open Cup matches, friendlies, midweek games, weekends, whatever.
With RSL as the underdog, I anticipated a pro-RSL feeling (aside from the Beckham Brigade). So as I waited at Occidental Plaza for the March to the Match, which I’d walked and utterly enjoyed during a previous visit in June, I did so with guarded optimism there would be not just butts in the seats, but jeers and cheers and chants and noise.
As march time approached and the crowd grew larger, the mood rose as well, yet it was somewhat muted. The essential catalyst soon arrived: boisterous, noisy, colorful RSL fans, shouting, “RSL!” “Beat L.A.!”, and other chants more original and less repeatable. Faces broke out in smiles, fists pumped the air, the Sound Wave marching band belted out a salute.
Some Galaxy jerseys also showed up but in the stands, and eventually on the field, RSL prevailed. What those fans lacked in numbers they made up for in spirit, and voice, and creative methods to pump up their players and berate the opposition. They were seen, and heard. To a man, the RSL players gave special thanks to those who had made the trip to share their triumph.
Not much can compare to the hordes of orange that invaded Pizza Hut Park in 2007 to see Houston knock off New England, but on a smaller scale it felt much the same. Traveling is a hassle and an expense and an inconvenience, which is why it means so much to fans, the players, those organizations, and the league.
On that March to the Match, I accompanied Sounders’ majority owner Joe Roth. Happy as he was about record attendances and a U.S. Open Cup title, already he was looking forward to the 2010 season, with “a big striker” tops on his shopping list. Along the way, several times Sounders fans approached him politely, greeted him with a big smile, and said something along the lines of, “I just wanted to say ‘Thank you’ for bringing the team here.” Roth graciously thanked them back and vowed to do more. The Sounders’ fans bring along that mutual commitment when they travel, and this year, they gleefully added trips to Portland and Vancouver to their MLS road repertoire.
Whether it’s the Red Patch Boys and other TFC fans trekking eight hours to Columbus, or the Sons of Ben or Timbers Army packing away sections, more of MLS fandom is taking to the road. They fly and drive and bus to feed their passion, a passion the league could only dream of when it launched in 1996. When the Crew and New York played at HDC three years ago, a small but boisterous group of Red Bull fans -- including the ornately horned Johnny Toro -- livened up a corner of the stadium. Some Crew fans made the long journey as well.
This year, I don’t expect the same waves of orange as there were at Pizza Hut Park in 2007, but I suspect the Dynamo will be represented. That team has taken root in its community, as was evidenced at its last home regular-season game, when just over 30,000 crammed Robertson Stadium to see a 3-1 pasting of, who else, the Galaxy.
Roles are reversed for the final, and so by how much orange shows up will be measured one very important facet of growth: the obstacles away fans endure to express their passion in person. There is no substitute.