League ponders MLS Cup changes

By Ridge Mahoney in Toronto

By the time streamers shot into the sky and fluttered down on Colorado Rapids players, coaches and staff celebrating with the club’s first MLS Cup, the stands are BMO Field in Toronto were mostly empty and the giant, white maple leaf that adorns the center-section seats was barely obscured.

Never before had MLS ventured as far north to stage its grand finale, prompting concerns about weather. Prior to the game Commissioner Don Garber reiterated several times his hope that Toronto FC fans, disgruntled by poor on-field performance and front-office bungling of their team, wouldn’t boycott the event. Had rain come down as forecast, a dreary setting it would have been.

If it wasn’t a perfect storm of adversity, it came close. Pre-selecting a venue months in advance is one facet of league operations under review; as a maturing league ponders how best to market and present its showcase event. With months of lead time , arrangements for transportation, accommodations, ancillary events, etc., are simpler to arrange, but most of the fans at a neutral venue tend to be, well, neutral.

Seattle fans came out in droves last year, despite the disappointing elimination of the first-year Sounders in the conference semifinal, and despite a rather lackluster game between Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles they got a good buzz going at Qwest Field. A wonderfully wild group of a few hundred RSL fans injected the proceedings with their chants and cheers and catcalls aimed at Landycakes, et al.

Some of the BMO faithful Sunday night livened up the mood, and small sections of FCD and Colorado supporters did what they could. It wasn’t a dour occasion by any means yet neither did it fizz.

Proclaimed as a sellout crowd of 21,700, the stands at kickoff were dotted by empty seats. A late Sunday night kickoff (8:55 p.m.) dictated by television, and harsh, windy conditions that included forecasts of rain prompted some fans to stay away. The game itself had its stylish moments, and FC Dallas’ opening goal – a glorious crossfield ball from left back Jair Benitez chested down and crisply served into the goalmouth by Marvin Chavez for league MVP David Ferreira to stab-volley into the net – exuded class.

More common in Colorado's 2-1 win were hard challenges and fearsome collisions: FCD defender George John and Colorado battering-ram Conor Casey clashed heads fiercely not once, but twice. There were more showdowns than show-stoppers, as the rugged Rapids blunted FCD’s creative elements and churned out occasional chances for Casey and others. Overtime kicked off at about 11 p.m., and by then a lot of fans had already fled into the night, braced and bundled against the sharp winds off Lake Ontario buffeting BMO Field.

So goes the risk of staging a late November, cold-weather city championship game, which the league granted to Toronto last March as reward for season after season of consistently full houses. Had TFC been in the final, of course, their rowdy, crazy fans would have come early – camping overnight if permitted to do so -- and stayed late, as they have since the team’s first game in 2007. Their anger over constantly rising ticket prices boiled over earlier this year when promise inspired by the hiring of Preki as head coach deteriorated into another losing season and the dismissal of both Preki – after just 24 games in charge -- and the man who hired him, Mo Johnston.

Commissioner Garber said prior to kickoff he believes the league may be ready to scrap the neutral-site final for a game hosted by the highest surviving seed. The complications imposed by such a switch are onerous -- far less time for fans, sponsors, and teams to schedule their travel plans and broadcast arrangements to be completed, finding hotels and suitable venues for ancillary events, etc., -- but could be mitigated by the raucous, colorful backdrop of home fans cheering and chanting their team to a title.

Yet the home team can lose. The mood might not be all that different with the away team waving and jumping around with a massive piece of silverware. Still, the league could increase the significance of regular-season play by assuring that the higher-seeded team that reaches the final gets to host it. Had that occurred this season, FCD would have hosted Colorado at Pizza Hut Park.

For decades, before the advent of a Super Bowl against the champion of a rival league, the NFL decided its title on the field of a finalist. The sports are vastly different but in no other major American team sport does a title rest on one game. While Garber acknowledges the current MLS playoff format that melds both knockout games (or the conference finals and MLS Cup) and a two-game series (conference semifinals) is somewhat contradictory, he can’t see the benefit of a home-and-away final by which a team could win the title by tying, or even losing, the second game. In the USA, at this stage of the game’s development, that won’t fly.

With the advent of soccer-specific facilities and a growing, passionate core of fans in many cities, Garber believes even with a week's notice, at best, most league teams could pack their venues for a title game. Next season could provide a possible window of opportunity if the league decides to experiment; as the league schedule is currently plotted, the projected date of the final conflicts with a mid-November FIFA international-fixture date.

Since staging its first Super Bowl in 1967, the NFL has used both one-week and two-week windows leading up to the grand finale. If it deems itself ready, MLS could use next season as a test case of a two-week option: determine the two finalists by mid-November, skip the weekend after the FIFA date, and stage its championship a week later in November.

A return to BMO Field next season in such circumstances isn’t likely, as TFC has yet to find replacements for either Johnston or Preki, though it has hired former German international Juergen Klinsmann – spotted in the stands Sunday night – as a consultant. And MLS Cup weather issues have cropped up before: a nor’easter lashed Foxboro Stadium for the inaugural MLS Cup in 1996.

Conditions for a late November finale at Red Bull Arena or PPL Park or a few other venues could be quite crisp, but the weather could be temperate and the scenes could be unforgettable. What if the Sounders were to host the big dance? On the other hand, would MLS and adidas and ESPN want a final at Buck Shaw Stadium? Ouch.

There are plenty of warm-weather options in MLS, but the league does not mandate a host – teams bid for the event and the league chooses the most compelling offer. In a few months, it may decide to give a new format a shot, and present a short-notice host the opportunity to show how far it, and the league, have progressed after 15 seasons.

15 comments about "League ponders MLS Cup changes".
  1. Joseph Simons, November 22, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.

    It is a joke ,this is not NFL it is not a superbowl ,it has to be two games ,one home and one away so the fans from each club can suporter their
    team at home or follow them to the next game .It is very easy don't complicate it.We in the USA always what to make it deferente.

  2. Gerald Laing, November 22, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.

    I think both the conference semis and final can be a home&home aggregate competition. But keep the final as one game. The Champions League Final is a one game affair. Granted it is at a pre-determined site.

  3. Juan Salas, November 22, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    As much as the U.S. is actually used to multiple game finals (NFL, NBA, MLB) it wouldn't work in soccer. A large advantage after game one would probably lead to a closed off and boring second game. MLS has to stick with a one-game final.

    But having the highest surviving team host the final is MLS best option. MLS Cup in 1997 was probably one of the best ever because it was in RFK and DC was in it, purely coincidental but it made it one of the most remarkable scenes in the history of MLS. Granted, the whether was crap but fans still flocked in. Point being weather aside, home fans will come is their team is in the finals.

    And if it's in San Jose, move it a bigger stadium, shouldn't be hard.

    Another thing that killed this final was that it was two western conference teams playing in an eastern conference stadium, which means looong travel for fans. If it was DC, NE, or Columbus against either Colorado or Dallas, it would have been easier for those fans to travel due to their proximity. I really hope MLS changes that somehow.

  4. Tim King, November 22, 2010 at 2 p.m.

    Listening to Garber at halftime was extremely painful (like listening to Lalas all the time); he is telling the MLS faithful that they are coming up with a playoff system. More wildcards, etc. Why can't the MLS Administration get it?! A single table like the EPL will solve alot of issues - actually all the issues. The final can still be a neutral venue. Lets move to a single table and then solve the sight issue for the final. We need our own Wembley - same sight, different teams every year.

  5. Jermaine Rolle, November 22, 2010 at 5:27 p.m.

    A single table format would be best for the MLS. More purist football fans would become interested in the league, and cities would have more loyal followers with their team trying to avoid relegation or move up in the tables. What good are seasonal games if the team that wins the most does not lift the cup at the end of the season? This works for American football, Basketball, and Baseball, however, not for soccer. It would be good for MLS to add an cup format that takes on a home and away playoff format to pit teams against one another. This means more MLS games, but two distinct tournaments going on. Of course this would be in conjunction with the Open Cup that currently exists between US professional divisions. The MLS started with a count down clock, thank God that was removed, The next step would be to do away with conference tables. Half the points winner at the end of the season be awarded the MLS cup. This way, each game would count.

  6. beautiful game, November 22, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.

    What is the reward for winning the Suppoerter's Shield?...nothing; Landon Donovan explained it from the players point of view, that putting out every game is not necessary as long as one makes the playoffs. Sounds like the spectators have no choice, but to watch mediocre futbol during the majority of the season.

  7. Steve Cusman, November 22, 2010 at 8:47 p.m.

    I just returned from the MLS Cup traveling from Florida to see the CUP. I have been going for several years. Although this new format suggeted would make larger croweds of one team, it would almost make it impossible for those of us that like to make an annual trip to see the MLS Cup. At least it is still affordable unlike the NFL Superbow.

  8. Michael Albers, November 22, 2010 at 9:29 p.m.

    King Don. If you want Soccer to catch on, starting making a couple of simple changes. Consider this. Championship game is not held at some neutral sight in a foreign land. Championship game is held at home turf of team with best record. A lot more folks in Dalls or Denver would have turned out and had much better memories than watching the shame you put on in Toronto.

  9. James Madison, November 22, 2010 at 10:52 p.m.

    A neutral site, yes. But one with better weather prospects, as in Texas or California. California will have the best weather, but Texas offers more potential for prime time tv on both East and West coast. In any event, but more importantly, either single game quarterfinals or home and away matches in the semifinals.

  10. Brian Herbert, November 22, 2010 at 11 p.m.

    come on, baseball and basketball have figured out how to do this. Hello Don, "this is not the NFL".

  11. Kenneth Cabral, November 23, 2010 at 3:07 p.m.

    I travelled from MA to attend the MLS Cup game in Toronto. First problem was that the only Friday night activities were open to only certain groups or by invitation only. That left most fans out. The pre-game activities were somewhat sparce and disappointing. I have attended the past 5 MLS Cup games and the one in Frisco, TX was by far the best organized. There were activities on Friday night and at the stadium on Saturday afternoon with a great variety of activities to engage in. I was also disappointed in the turnout in Toronto and the fact that many fans left early. The Toronto FC management should take the blame for not organizing and more fan friendly event. Also, don't blame the weather it wasn't all that bad. Whatever the league does for next season I hope that they keep the fans in mind and offer more fun centered pre-game activities.

  12. Fred LaRoche, November 26, 2010 at 5:16 p.m.

    Go with a single table format and the winner is the league champion, period. Something that is valued and celebrated. Then the top 8 teams compete for the MLS Cup. Come on Don, it ain't rocket science.

  13. Nick Prodanovich, November 27, 2010 at 5:11 a.m.

    I just don't get this obsession with single table. Single Table without promotion/relegation and with a limited number of playoff teams is a problem. And I can tell you from a business perspective that promotion/relegation is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

    If you had 20 teams in a single table and 8 go to the playoffs your in danger of making a significant portion of the season irrelevant for 8 to 10 teams at the bottom.

    The other issue with single table is that it becomes impractical with 24+ teams. And while MLS may stay with 20 for a few years, that is not the long term vision for a continental size league.

    I do agree with comments that the Supporter's Shield winner needs to be further elevated in League stature in terms of both recognition and rewards, including special consideration in the MLS Playoffs.

  14. Kyr-Roger St.-Denis, November 30, 2010 at 9:16 a.m.

    I don't know about anybody else, but I prefer the single-table, even without promotion and relegation, because it ensures that the winner will be the team that has done the best over the entire season. Sometimes, yes, that happens even with a playoff scenario; other times, the best team over the season loses a single match, and we end up with some also-ran hoisting the cup and being remembered as the "champion." Consider, for example, the WPS winners of the past two years.

  15. Paul Bryant, December 30, 2010 at 12:22 p.m.

    I know this is late, but why is the championship game being played on a Sunday night. Play it Saturday night to leave Sunday as a travel day for fans visiting the host city. It is a lot easier for working people to get off on Thursday and Friday then on Monday. With regard to the league, make it a single table for goodness sake!

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