By Paul Gardner
It looks like a pretty good bet that, when this weekend is over, we shall find ourselves back where we were a year ago ... with an MLS Cup final between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo.
A state of affairs that some will, with reason, find automatically unacceptable. Simply because neither of those teams won its conference. Worse than that, neither team came anywhere near winning a title. The Galaxy was the fourth-place finisher in the west, 12 points behind the winner San Jose. Houston finished fifth in the East, 10 points behind winner Kansas City.
Which makes rather a travesty of the regular season, all 34 games of it, and is why the playoff system is controversial -- it just comes over as being inherently unfair. Against that you can set the facts that -- with the supposed home-field advantage -- Kansas City had its chance to oust Houston, and ditto for San Jose against Los Angeles. And both the lower ranked teams came out on top.
In fact, this season’s playoff scorelines seem designed to show the playoff set up in the worst possible light. I like the playoffs, but I’m going to find it mighty hard to defend a final in which a No. 4 team takes on a No. 5 team. Come to that, should the unlikely happen, should D.C.United and Seattle somehow overcome the odds, we’d still have an ostensibly sub-par No. 2 vs No. 3 final.
But the reality is that once the play-off system is in place, these anomalies are likely to occur. There may, in fact, be a logic to them -- they simply mean, or should mean, that the teams advancing to the final are those that are currently playing the best soccer.
Which ought to mean that the playoffs ensure a good final between two in-form teams. Another slice of optimistic thinking that falls flat on its face. Because not only do the playoffs introduce the in-form factor -- i.e. they reward late-season success -- but they also introduce the relevance of the “playoff team.” That is, a team that seems to excel - maybe specialize is a better word -- when playoff games come around. A team that knows how to handle the two-game series, a team that can win at home and that is not daunted by the away games.
Which is where the worries about this year’s final start. Houston under Dominic Kinnear has proved over the years that it is better than anyone else at playing disciplined, no frills -- and largely no errors -- type soccer. A team that makes the most of its chances and defends with consistent intelligence to make sure that the opposition’s chances are kept to a minimum.
Of course, that is a formula that any team would embrace. Few do, with any persistence, because it requires rare patience and a disciplined devotion to the tactical side of the game. And it is a formula that does not make for the world’s most exciting soccer.
Last year’s final was a pretty drab affair. Maybe it would have been better had Houston’s Brad Davis not been benched by injury. Better -- but not by much. Houston does not come to play sparkling soccer. It is, it seems, a playoff team that gives us playoff soccer. And the essential ingredient of that is a smothering defensive presence all over the field, a high-work-rate hassling of opposing players who have the ball. Houston has perfected this and -- on the whole -- it manages to do it without the overt roughness that it might well entail. Though roughness -- by Andre Hainault -- was cynically and successfully used in last week’s game against D.C. United.
Houston 2012 doesn’t look that much different from 2011 -- or from the Houston teams that won MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007. Though the presence of Boniek Garcia on the current team does add something that Houston teams have generally lacked -- the possibility of something unusual, something individually brilliant, something ... well, sparkling.
Last year’s final finished 1-0 to the Galaxy. A familiar scoreline -- all three of the Galaxy’s MLS Cup titles have come from 1-0 wins, with two of the games going to overtime. A miserly scoring record that suggests the Galaxy is no more likely than the Dynamo to be looking to give us a barnburner.
But ... where the Dynamo has Garcia, the Galaxy has two players who just may be able to improve on the team’s pathetic scoring rate -- Robbie Keane and Mike Magee, both in fine goal-scoring form. And the Galaxy has, in Bruce Arena, a coach who has never been known as an advocate of cautious soccer.
I’m writing as though it’s a given that Houston and Los Angeles will meet in the final. Maybe not. Actually, I’d be far happier if we got the Seattle Sounders against D.C.United.
History has a lot to do with that preference. In its seven MLS Cup final appearances, the Galaxy has scored seven goals. One goal per game. Houston has been in three finals, and has scored three goals. One goal per game. Seattle has no final experience, but D.C., in its five finals, scored 10 times. Two goals per game.
If this year’s final is going to be another of those bleak occasions when the “defense wins championships” bores start their bleating, then my belief in the playoff system will be sorely tested. It has, let’s face it, delivered pitifully few memorable finals.