By Ridge Mahoney
The MLS regular season, which ends this weekend, can lay claim to being the best in league history.
By various parameters one can argue for and against this assertion: attendance, quality of play, revenues, TV and media exposure, combined financial clout of ownership groups, stability, etc. Like most things in life, as well as life itself, there’s plenty of good and bad to be found in MLS.
In North America, professional league seasons are concluded and defined by playoffs, which are yet to be staged in MLS. Yet regardless of which lifts the MLS Cup on Dec. 1, at a venue to be decided, there’s much that deserves credit.
Half-empty stadiums are offset by fanatical, packed crowds in several other venues, and bland games fade in the memory when pulsating encounters like last weekend’s D.C. United-Columbus barnburner unfold before our eyes. I won't soon forget the sight of Ben Olsen -- that's Coach Ben Olsen -- joyously hugging his players as rampant delirium reigned in the crowd. Yeah, it's only a playoff spot. But to that organization -- a four-time MLS Cup champion -- and those fans that five-year wait felt like forever.
Strictly speaking anecdotally, and from personal observation, there have been more good games this year than ever before, games with decent levels of skill and intensity and imbued by at least a few players capable of the spectacular.
It is jarring to switch from a La Liga or Premier League or Champions League match to watch Toronto-Colorado, but when expectations are reasonable, enjoyment – or at least attention – can be sustained. Not all of the time, but much of the time.
A shameful incident such as a Houston player barking a gay slur at a ballboy doesn’t mitigate selfless acts like that of FC Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz. He’s endured the arduous and painful procedures required to donate bone marrow that could save someone’s life. He had registered as a possible donor when his club at the time, Real Salt Lake, launched a local and national drive to find a donor for Marcia Williams, wife of attacker Andy Williams, who was suffering from leukemia.
This is an extreme example of what this league has given to the country, but it’s not untypical. During the past 17 seasons hundreds of players and coaches and executives have displayed commitment to communities and causes away from the field. To charitable organizations and benefit groups, MLS is a player.
The league has its heroes, and it has its villains, and some play both roles at different times, a.k.a. Thierry Henry, whose brilliance and petulance are often of the highest order. As did Eric Wynalda and Marco Etcheverry and Diego Serna and Mamadou Diallo and many others, Henry has true artistry in his soul, and not always the discipline to rely on it.
Henry typifies snugly the star-crossed image of the Red Bulls, who are good enough to challenge for the conference title but more than sufficiently flawed to crash out early no matter where they finish. I mean which other team would announce a major management shakeup as the playoffs drew near?
A soap opera such as the Red Bulls is compelling enough in itself, yet there’s been plenty more to savor. Jimmy Nielsen didn’t catch Tony Meola’s MLS shutout record of 16, but Chris Wondolowski has one more game to tie or beat Roy Lassiter’s mark of 27 goals. San Jose has run away with the Supporters’ Shield, as it did as a different organization in 2005, yet possibly blocking its path is the Galaxy, an upset winner over the Quakes that year on its way to the title and the defending champion this time around.
The playoffs will shape much of how 2012 is remembered. That’s how it works in these parts. What should also be recalled is that, in its 17th season, MLS has equaled the life of the once-glamorous North American Soccer League, formed out of two rival leagues that butted heads during the summer of 1967 before merging to start operations the following year.
Twenty-eight years ago, during the first week of October, 1984, Chicago swept Toronto in two games to win the league title. The Sting won both, and took that last outdoor NASL title with it to the Major Indoor Soccer League. Several other teams followed the same route. There would be no 18th NASL season and not for a dozen years would the outdoor pro game return.
Speculation about the 18th MLS season has already begun. Will Toronto finally get its act together, and will yet another shakeup at Chivas USA re-re-re-establish its Mexican heritage? How many DPs will leave, and how many will arrive? Can an MLS team finally win the Concacaf Champions League?
There’s much more reason to salute MLS beyond mere survival, and there’s certainly grounds for criticism of what it does in certain regards. What looked doomed and shaky a decade ago is not only still standing, it’s ripening with age, not withering, and every season, it conjures up a few more unforgettable memories.