By Paul Gardner
If MLS adhered, more or less, to what are regarded as the "standard" regulations for playing a soccer season. And if the MLS season were to be finished right now ... then we just had the final this past weekend.
In this “adjusted final,” we saw the Los Angeles Galaxy, the best in the West, defeat the Columbus Crew, the top team in the East, by a 3-1 scoreline.
Bruce Arena and Landon Donovan would be crowned champions and David Beckham would have captured a small sliver of the glory for his 20 minutes on the field.
So we can thank heavens for the playoff system that rules that out. We may still get the Galaxy as champions, of course, but for the moment we are spared that ordeal.
Saturday’s game was hardly one that would have gone down as a memorable MLS Cup event. I’d hoped for something a lot better, for this reason: We are used to grand finals falling short of the hype.
There’s no doubt that the expectations and feverish buildup also raise disappointment levels when things don’t go according to plan. Yet here was a final that wasn’t -- yet -- a final, with two teams who weren’t -- yet -- finalists. Almost like a pressure-free rehearsal for a final. A game that should have been unaffected by over-publicity and nervousness, a game that should have given us a lot of open play and plenty of good soccer.
Not quite. The soccer was certainly fast-paced, but it was never flowing. Why would that be? Not least because both teams rely substantially on the destructive ability of their midfield rottweilers -- Dema Kovalenko and Chris Birchall for the Galaxy, Adam Moffat and Brian Carroll for the Crew (who were missing Danny O’Rourke, another formidable contributor to that sort of thing).
Tackling, ball-winning, sudden turnovers, quick-fire counterattacks were what we got. Which inevitably meant a lot of midfield battles and a hiccuppy succession of staccato attacking plays, first this way, then that way and, mostly, going nowhere.
The Galaxy is pretty good at that sort of thing, certainly too good for the Crew. The foul count is a good way of measuring a team’s proficiency at rottweilering and the Galaxy won that contest by a country mile, with 15 fouls and 2 yellow cards, against the Crew’s paltry total of 6 fouls. What that style, imposed on the game by both teams, meant was that we didn’t see nearly enough of the two most skillful players, Landon Donovan and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Edson Buddle had his moment with a beautifully neat finish for the first Galaxy goal, while Donovan’s quick, eagle-eyed pass through traffic gave Kovalenko the opportunity to make a rare positive contribution to a game with the second goal.
Otherwise, run, run, run, with the occasional physical confrontation and a spat or two with the referee. If this were a tryout for a staging of the final, both teams would be told “Don’t call us ...”
At the moment, we would unquestionably get a much better final from the second-place teams. A New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake matchup would surely offer a much better chance of seeing a game based on skill and the ability to move the ball through concerted passing and intelligent team play.
Real showed last season that they can do this. In Javier Morales they have a superb orchestrator, with Andy Williams another creative midfield force. Kyle Beckerman could be said to play the rottweiler role, but he does so with a skill that allows him to play a creative role at the same time.
Add in tricky, talented forwards like Robbie Findley, Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola and the good soccer starts to roll.
As for the Red Bulls, things are beginning to look good -- as, with Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez on the team they damn well ought to do. This weekend’s 3-1 win over the Colorado Rapids gave signs that a sharp, intuitive understanding between the players -- and without that, you can forget about flowing soccer -- is beginning to develop.
Oddly, the one worry in that area is a continued lack of interplay between Angel and Henry, the very two who should be producing all sorts of designated-player-fireworks. The Red Bulls problem is that the team is top heavy. With nearly half of its salary cap money swallowed up by three players, there are inevitably deficiencies in the supporting cast.
Defensively, rookie Tim Ream continues his solid play, but the occasional error lurks, as it does with his partner Carlos Mendes. This weakness has led to Marquez playing deeper than would be ideal.
Tony Tchani plays a key midfield role of tidying things up and distributing the ball. This is a big part for a rookie to play, but Tchani is learning quickly -- his refusal to panic or to hurry his play is a precocious maturity that serves him well. Should the Bulls decide that they need midfield rottweilerisms, there is always Seth Stammler. Mostly, coach Hans Backe has eschewed that route, looking for something more stylish.
Playoff soccer, bringing whatever that entails, is still some six weeks away. It is quite likely that little will have changed in the meantime, and that MLS Cup will feature two of the four clubs discussed above. Well, we’ve had a preview of a Galaxy vs. Crew final, and it didn’t look so hot. The best way of warming things up on a chilly November 21 up in Toronto will be a final featuring the Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake.