Commentary

Donovan departs in triumph. Pity about the soccer.

By Paul Gardner

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.

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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.

10 comments about "Donovan departs in triumph. Pity about the soccer. ".
  1. Brendan Coyne, December 8, 2014 at 11:18 p.m.

    Best of luck to LD. He will be fine.

    You are right about Alexi; he'd better watch out or he will be pushed out on to the plank with JK.

    Was this the best soccer we can expect from the MLS or was this somehow a fluke? With the availability of European soccer in today's TV market we can only hope this, our US product improves.

  2. Kent James, December 8, 2014 at 11:40 p.m.

    Paul Gardner relying on statistics!? Perish the thought. The next thing you know he'll actually allow coaches to use such measures to try to improve their teams' performances. (:-) Though in this case, the statistics did not lie. I've never seen so many poor passes in a professional game. I'm not sure why, because most MLS games are better than that. The field looked uneven (at leas in the color of the grass) but the announcers said it was in excellent shape. There were a lot of long passes (maybe PG will provide some statistics for that), which were more likely to become turnovers, but I was amazed at how many seemingly simple passes went astray.

  3. Andrea Hana, December 9, 2014 at 2:29 a.m.

    The first half was a yawner. The second, and overtime, was kind of a desperate blood-bath with some poor sportsmanship displayed. One of the worst games, especially for the MLS Cup, to have been played this season. I hold a grudge. I wished that the Sounders would have, finally, overtaken their nemesis and gone on to play the Rev's. THAT would have been a better game! Every club in the league seems to have something to prove when they went up against the Sounders, but it made a recipe for exciting games! What a season they had! Too bad about this "piss poor" MLS Cup game!

  4. Tom Tani, December 9, 2014 at 6:43 a.m.

    I may incur some wrath here in referring to the "Other" football :) but I think what we saw here was what we see in many of the NFL Super Bowl Games, both teams playing "tight" and not to lose instead of playing like they should. LA was probably thinking about sending LD off in style and NE was thinking about breaking their 0-4 record in MLAS finals.

    I am just glad we didn't end the game in a PK shootout!

  5. David Singer, December 9, 2014 at 9:02 a.m.

    Paul Gardner's article pretty much sums up what it's like in a typical MLS game. The plays are not very sophisticated and there is an overall lack of good fundamentals and defense. The players don't work the pitch like a chessboard the way Barclay's Premier League teams do. They just want to go straight for the goal, hence the turnovers.

    Admittedly, I'm a new comer to MLS, but a rave fan of BPL, La Liga and follow most European Leagues. I’ve made the concerted effort to watch live games of my hometown DC United team and drove to Gillette Stadium to watch the Revs take on the Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. I like the excitement, but the talent is not quite there. I support my local team by buying season tickets, but I hope the teams improve.

    I think we ought to open the flood gates and allow grotesque amounts of money to be spent on players (Domestic and foreign) and allow greater transfer like scenarios like the European Leagues. It would encourage young players with great athletic ability to aspire to MLS, talented prime aged foreign players to play here (Not just the near retirement aged greats!), and open the US players to play alongside (Or against) footballers with greater depth and skill.

    It may create uneven teams, but we all like our Goliaths. And we like our Davids to beat the Goliaths. It’ll create rivalries and passion to follow our teams. The teams all seem sterile and too evenly balanced (Albeit there is that Western/Eastern conference disparity!). We should have relegation (Some would say there is that between the Western/Eastern conference.). I watch MLS for the sheer joy of the sport, but I can’t say I’m deeply passionate about it. The MLS has done nothing to cultivate that for the true soccer fan.

  6. Didi P, December 9, 2014 at 11:05 a.m.

    So PG, you mean KL is right that young american talent should go to Europe?

  7. Vince Leone, December 9, 2014 at 2:34 p.m.

    Didi P and David Singer: You nailed it, especially that "the players are not very sophisticated." I am no eurosnob and have been an MLS season ticket holder since year one, but I am also not blind. I regularly watch La Liga, and I guarantee you the average player in that league is more sophisticated than most MLS players. I love MLS and will continue to support it, but this MLS cup was a clear indication of what Klinsmann is trying to get at.

  8. Rick Estupinan, December 10, 2014 at 4:07 p.m.

    Rick Estupinan
    commented on: December 10, 2014 at 4:05 p.m.
    I am surprise that no one says anything bad about this Championship match.It was a poor performance by both teams,with very sloppy plays,(terrible passes),unskillful players who could not keep possession of the ball for more than a few minutes,and then,without looking,would give it to the opposition.What a shame that a final,watched by millions would have to be so poor.

    Leave a Comment. Signed in as Rick Estupinan | Sign Out

  9. Rick Estupinan, December 10, 2014 at 4:35 p.m.

    The MLS teams have to look for skillful young players,American or South Americans, like Portland Timber's D. Valery,en exciting attacking player to watch.To bad that instead of the Galaxi,it was no The Sounders.Dempsey and and that hard working,brilliant black kid (I am so sorry I can't remember his name right now),but the two make an exciting duo to watch.

  10. Rick Estupinan, December 10, 2014 at 4:44 p.m.

    What kind of a writer this PG is.In the whole article about Donovan,he does not mention, not even once the team LD plays for.How about if we fans did not know.The names of teams like "Real Salt Lake","Kansas City Royals",appear but not the LA team's name .

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