By Paul Gardner
So, is that the end of the playoffs, then? Or do these conference finals also count as playoffs? I rather hope not, because I've had my fill of playoff
soccer, thank you, and would like to see something a little more ... er, a little more, shall we say, refined?
If I had to compose the typical, all-purpose, inevitable playoff quote, it
would go like this: "There was not one guy who didn't leave it all on the field today." I've been saved the effort of thinking of that, because somebody, a player, actually said it over the weekend.
Doesn't matter who -- you can track it down if you like -- because various different forms of it were tumbling out of people's mouths at all four games, from both winners and losers.
course, they're all correct, everyone did give their all. Whether they also gave their best is quite another matter. But this "leaving it all on the field" stuff -- is that all that we should be
looking for? Does that alone make for memorable games, or even good soccer?
No, not by a country mile, it doesn't. My least favorite of these eight games was the last to be played, the
Galaxy vs. Chivas USA decider. What on earth has happened to Bruce Arena? This is the guy who gave us the best college team most of us have ever seen in Virginia, and the classiest and winningest MLS
team in D.C. United. And now, with two of the sport's major stars in Landon Donovan and David Beckham he gives us this patchwork, raggle-taggle Galaxy? This team that knows how to grind out 1-0
results, an achievement that is apparently the acme of professionalism.
Maybe there really is a Gresham's Law of sorts at work in soccer -- maybe if you put a Dema Kovalenko on the
field, the bad soccer does drive out the good. You have a better explanation for the banality that the Galaxy and Chivas USA served up?
An unpleasant, prickly game decided by a lone
penalty kick goal (cue Landon Donovan and his time-wasting eccentricities), and a game that ended in totally unsportsmanlike disarray. Ended, in other words, in exactly the way that it was played.
Doing the 180 leads me to Real Salt Lake which, I've no doubt left it all etc. but looked good while doing so, and played some pretty good soccer. Their opponents, Columbus, suffered as much
from their own coach's whims as from Real's lively play. Columbus needed Guillermo Barros Schelotto -- his absence from the first game showed just how much they needed him. But Robert Warzycha not
only left him out of the first-game lineup (possibly protecting him from the rigors of two tense games in six days) but had his team playing defensively as well. So they lost, and serve 'em right.
Schelotto was back for game two and almost won it single-handedly for Columbus with his two first-half goals. But Real -- no doubt encouraged by their first-game victory -- gave us a superb three-goal
comeback, and goodbye Columbus.
But Schelotto was not the star of the playoffs -- that honor goes to the Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who played superbly in its 2-0 win over New England. A
master class in the art of the playmaking midfielder -- capped off with the winning goal, scored with disdainful deliberation in the middle of a frantic penalty area.
You watch the
intelligence and the control that Schelotto and Blanco bring, and you have to wonder about Steve Nicol and his Revs, the so-near-and-no-further gang. With a player of that type -- in other words, with
a midfield brain -- Nicol would have a hell of a team. But, as we know from watching these headless Revs for four or five years now, Nicol doesn't want a midfield maestro. So he gives us the
overpraised Shalrie Joseph and the downright ordinary Jeff Larentowicz and a team that knows how to play frantically, but not intelligently. The final 10 minutes of the game gave us the Revs at their
most frantic, and damn exciting it was. Whether it qualifies as soccer, I'd question that. But it did mean another loss for the Revs.
One thing I love about Nicol, though, is the way he's
learned to handle sideline interviews. He knows the questions vary only in the degree of their stupidity and he manages to come up with sensible-sounding answers, but all the while there's a huge
invisible wink coming at you, letting you know that Nicol has learned to suffer fools gladly.
But where the experienced Nicol and Arena have disappointed, the newcomer Jason Kreis has
come through. Kreis's reliance on open, attacking soccer has taken Real Salt Lake to the Conference final. It is also a strong pointer to the future of MLS. At the end of this MLS season at least
four, possibly as many as seven, clubs will be looking for new coaches. One can hope that the recycling of familiar names has now come to an end, and that new faces will appear. Kreis -- and Peter
Nowak -- have shown that MLS has now been around long enough to provide a reservoir of ex-players with coaching potential. A new, younger generation which will surely bring a more broad-minded view of
the game to replace the hide-bound approach shown by many of the league's original coaching class.
For MLS the problem remains not a shortage of coaching candidates, but the soccer
ignorance of far too many of the GMs who will make the appointments.
Fair (and amusing) analysis of the weekend's play, though I don't think you can complain about there being too much intensity in the playoffs - I switched on mainly for the games' second halves, and enjoyed the full-tilt back and forth and the close finishes. After such a moribund regular season, it was good to see teams going all out (albeit out of necessity, and fear of elimination), and to see players running with the ball and attacking space. It's a shame this mainly seems to happens in fall, when there's something at stake.
Ultimately, though, you're right - we're left with the undeniable evidence that ageing, imported pros like Blanco and Schelotto (and, in flashes, even Beckham) are still showing us how to play the game. Yours is the second plea I've read for new coaching blood in MLS, and I hope it's heeded.
Get rid of the playoffs. Forth place teams that do not try as hard during the regular season, make the playoffs? It's takes consistancy and ability to stay on top for the duration of a season. The way WE do it now, it makes most of the season meaningless. Let's use our American knowhow and come up with a better system. Alvaro Bettucchi, South San Francisco
I think the play-offs are in important USA phenomenon. While I agree with the 4th place comment above--I think our play off system is a good signature move for us. I seriously doubt the USA will ever have relegation to a lower league--a system that is motivating in most respects over in England. But there is the hope of higher TV revenues for USA soccer in the future. And the incentives that money bring will always at least create a fight for the top four spots in each conference.