The winner of MLS Cup 2014, the only winner, really, was Landon Donovan. He ended his wonderful career in triumph. He dominated the post-game activities, as he deserved to. It was right -- if a tad mean -- to note that while Donovan was in close-up doing an on-field interview, there, in the background, a small-scale ceremony was going on as MLS President Mark Abbott handed out the losers medals to the Revs’ players.
As it happens, Donovan had not had a particularly good game. But the admiration and the praise were not for just one performance, but for a whole 14-year career of skillful, attractive soccer, of memorable goals and assists.
Donovan’s soccer exploits will long be remembered. I seriously doubt that this game, this MLS final, will be. There is an awkward truth about sporting contests: you can always pick two winners: the team that did win, because the scoreboard says so, and the team that deserved to win, whatever the frigging scoreboard says.
Mostly -- in the vast majority of cases -- the winning team belongs in both categories, which is important, as it keeps our faith in the fairness of sports and does away with any incipient disillusionment.
In a small percentage of soccer games, it’s glaringly obvious that the better team, the team that played “the better soccer,” has lost, that injustice reigns. Whereupon fans -- so we are told -- throw themselves from the tops of stadiums.
In a much smaller percentage of games, there seems to be nothing whatever to separate the teams, just an iffy one goal on the scoreboard, which could just as easily have been scored by the other team.
That last scenario is pretty much what we got from MLS Cup 2014. Not satisfying. But then, in case you’ve forgotten, dissatisfaction was what we got last year. Did Kansas City really deserve to beat Real Salt Lake? My take on that game was that RSL played the better soccer. And lost.
My take on Sunday’s game is rather different. Neither team played the “better” soccer. In fact, there were protracted spells in this game when both teams seemed to have forgotten how to play soccer at all. It was pretty dire stuff that was being served up in this climactic championship game. I said that Donovan did not have a particularly good game, but then who did? No one stood out, everyone made mistakes, sometimes pretty bad ones. Robbie Keane actually had a poor game, but his MVP award was justified because, after several failures, he did manage to get things right to score the winning goal.
Things were so bad, that when it was all over -- when I was suffused with the satisfaction of knowing the Donovan was getting the send-off he deserved -- I began to seriously doubt whether I was remembering the game correctly.
Surely, it couldn’t have been as inept as I thought. Well, I’ve watched the first half again -- not a task I undertook with any great enthusiasm -- and I have come up with some unofficial stats. The thing that worried me most watching this game was that there seemed to be an alarming number of turnovers. Which is a sure indication of sloppy play.
So I created my own definition of a turnover. It had to be an unforced and obvious error by the player with the ball, e.g. a pass directly to an opponent, or a thoroughly misplaced pass directly into touch, or a player mis-playing the ball so that it slipped into touch. I included turnovers that occurred when a player, not paying attention, had the ball stolen from his feet, but not those that followed successful tackles. I also included long goal kicks -- aimless kicks -- that ended up with the other team.
I had intended to record these turnover stats for the whole game, but working on the first half proved so tiresome and depressing that just those first 45 minutes will have to do.
Are you ready? In the first half there were 107 turnovers. One hundred and seven. Double-checked. There was little to choose between the teams -- the Revs gave the ball away 52 times, the Galaxy coughed it up 55 times.
Admittedly, I have no “regular” stats to set alongside that 107 figure. But my feeling -- my certainty -- is that the regular figure, the average figure, is going to be a lot lower. It has to be.
Consider: it is taken for normal that in a 90-minute game, the ball is in play for 60 minutes. So, in those 45-minutes that I logged, there were only 30 minutes of live action. Which gives us over three turnovers per minute. That means -- surely it must mean -- that anything looking like decent soccer cannot be played. We got the proof of that last assumption, didn’t we ever, direct from the StubHub Center. The caliber of the soccer in MLS 2014 was inescapably dismal.
Maybe the second half was better -- it seemed to be so. There was a hint, during the first half, that the quality was slowly improving. In the first five minutes of the game there were 16 turnovers, followed by 17 in each of the next two five-minute spells. The tally went down appreciably after that -- 9, 8, 9, 8 for the next slots. But then, between 35 and 40 minutes it went up to 11, then to 12 for the final five minutes.
Not really too much to get optimistic about there. When Alexi Lalas announced at halftime that the game so far had been a stinker he got it exactly right, though he’d better learn, assuming he wants to keep his job, that TV has a selection of acceptable terms for a lousy game -- compelling, intriguing, fascinating, tense, promising, cat-&-mouse, hard-fought, gripping, suspenseful -- but “stinker” is not one of them. Though it ought to be.
Reasons? How come the two best teams in MLS produced such an inert affair? Another time for that discussion, I think. And I will get back to it shortly. For the moment, the departure of Landon Donovan is foremost in my mind. I am saddened by that, doubly so when I realize that he has no obvious heir, that there is no young American player with the skill and the flair to replace him.