MLS Cup 2018: The long-awaited festival of futbol

It has been my opinion for some 20 years or more that what American soccer needs is a hefty infusion of Latino talent and Latino ideas.

The arrival of MLS in 1996, and the careful selection of a limited number of star players to help kick-start the league was a promising moment. A handful of talented Latinos quickly made their mark -- Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raul Diaz Arce and -- particularly -- Marco Etcheverry.

This proved a false dawn, as the league rather quickly turned toward a physical, more European style of play. No doubt because not one of the original 10 coaches was Latino. We now have 20 MLS coaches. This past season four were Latinos, an improvement but not exactly a convincing one.

But there has been, over the past few seasons, a slowly dawning, almost reluctant it seems, discovery that Latino players -- particularly at the all-important creative No. 10 position -- can hugely improve their teams.

That’s hardly news for the four Latino coaches. They have, to different extents, gone with their soccer instincts and produced teams that their soccer heritage demands -- teams dominated by Latino players, teams that play Latino-style soccer ... futbol. For two of them -- the Venezuelan Giovanni Savarese at Portland, and the Argentine Gerardo Martino at Atlanta -- their insistence on futbol has quickly brought success.

In Atlanta’s final playoff game last weekend, five of the 10 field players were from South America, as were two of the subs. In Portland’s win at Kansas City, six starters and one sub were Latinos.

And it is those two teams that will compete for MLS Cup on Saturday. A tremendous success story for Atlanta, in only its second year of play, a terrific achievement for Savarese in his first year of MLS coaching.

Two teams that have not only been winning regularly, but teams that have been exciting and entertaining to watch. In many ways, this is what I have passed years waiting and hoping for -- a Latino final, a showcase game that would highlight the skills and thrills of futbol.

So maybe I should be dancing in the streets or shouting from the rooftops ... the appointed day has arrived! Of course I’m greatly satisfied with the way things have turned out ... but ... yes, always that cautious but ... lately, when we’re looking at grand finals, soccer has been giving us, one after another, some pretty awful games.

The 2010 and 2014 World Cup finals bordered on the tedious. While this year’s had more life, it never really took off. And so on. Would anyone want to sit through replays of the last two MLS finals, both featuring Toronto vs Seattle? An utterly vapid 0-0 tie in 2016 (Seattle won the shootout and so became champions without scoring a goal), a rather uneventful 2-0 win for Toronto last year.

Things can hardly get worse, Atlanta vs Portland is bound to look better than those games, but, really, here is an opportunity to give us a memorable game. Logically, that is what we should get. With goals. Atlanta, playing at home with over 70,000 fans roaring them on, will not be defensive, while Portland are coming off two remarkable road victories, against Seattle and Kansas City.

I doubt there has been an MLS final with so much attacking brilliance on the field. Atlanta has Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez, a Paraguayan and a Venezuelan, two of the best attacking players ever to play in MLS. Portland can match that with a pair of Argentines, Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco.

Venezuelan Josef Martinez leads the Atlanta attack. Photo: Courtesy of Atlanta United.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to gaze at all that talent: Martinez, who now owns the record for goals scored (31) in a regular MLS season; Almiron, he of the darting runs, the decisive goals and -- as on Atlanta’s second goal in the home game against the Red Bulls -- almost surreal passes; Blanco, at 30, a non-stop, diminutive, bundle of artistry and tricks, scorer of a tremendous golazo against Kansas City; and Valeri, another veteran, spry and silky as ever, scorer of a remarkable opportunistic goal after only 27 seconds to lead Portland to victory in the 2015 final, and another, equally sudden and stunning, against Kansas City last week.

And that’s just the cream of the crop. Both teams have formidable supporting casts. Yes, it’s all there, a real final, two first-class teams who must, surely, produce a first-class game.

For MLS, the first Latino final, a game that can show MLS, with its ridiculous subservience to mediocre European players and patterns, just what it has been missing all these years.

I can think of plenty of reasons why this should be a spectacular game and, really, none why it should be a bore. But of course, one has doubts. With soccer you never know.

Except that there is one thing we do know ... that even now MLS, and American soccer in general, are still having problems acknowledging the importance of the final as a futbol event. MLS itself, plus the various TV commentators, seem utterly incapable of admitting that the success and the excitement of Atlanta and Portland is a direct consequence of its Latino players.

It seems that futbol -- to borrow from gay terminology -- is the soccer that dare not speak its name. I have no idea why this should be so, but I have yet to read or hear a media assessment of this game, or of these teams, that highlights the dominant Latino influence.

Shall we get, as part of the TV buildup, even a short feature on futbol, something that might try to seek out and explain the essential nature of the Latino game, the quiddities that give futbol its essential futbol flavor?

Very doubtful. To do that would mean acknowledging, implicitly if not explicitly, the colossal mistake that MLS has been making for two decades by ignoring futbol.

Yes, I’m veering from mild caution to excessive optimism about this one. I have to keep reminding myself that, however much I may laud the futbol aspect, this is still a final, which summons up images from the rotten finals that soccer has been giving us for some time now (and one of those finals -- I think the worst I have ever seen -- was the 2016 Copa Centenario game, a futbol affair between Chile and Argentina … coached by Gerardo Martino).

Well, the hell with the caution. I’ll go with the enthusiasm -- with the belief that this will be, for all the right futbol reasons, a helluva game.

If not, it’s sackcloth and ashes for me.

12 comments about "MLS Cup 2018: The long-awaited festival of futbol".
  1. Richard Broad, December 5, 2018 at 10:38 a.m.

    It's good for the game to see Latin flair on display but it would be a lot nicer to see this quality displayed by AMERICANS,

  2. P T replied, December 24, 2018 at 2:16 p.m.

    Richard: "Americans" are not going to show "Latin flair" untill they change the mentality and adopt a skill-based approach and on the field problem solving rather than tacitical, physical and fast play. This mentality begins with structured academies pushing their agenda. Until "America" modifies the present approach to soccer, we will linger on in boring soccer. Henece the MTX and others are seeking the missed American players (often Latinos and others) who are playing on the streets or cannot afford the pay to play approach to American soccer. 

  3. beautiful game, December 5, 2018 at 11:06 a.m.

    Paul, too bad the USSF and MLS are not listening. Let's hope that Tata Martinez and his Atlanta squad continue entertaining with its Latino Flair and not succumb to "trench warfare" in the 2018 final.

  4. John Bauman, December 5, 2018 at 1:23 p.m.

    I find it strange that the term "physical, more European style of play" is used here, demeaningly.  I have been watching both the British anf German leagues for some time now and I find the quality of play of the least of them superior to any US team, and the extreme physicality of the Latino leagues akin to kick boxing mixed with practised pratfalls.  The US could take a lesson from any PL or BL team, in fact they just recently did so.  But taking a lesson is different learning from the lesson.

  5. beautiful game replied, December 5, 2018 at 2:02 p.m.

    Physicality is part of the game, that's why LOTG were written to promote an even playing field. But when FIFA instructs the referees to keep the game moving with selective infringement stoppages, the players tend to take the physicality to extreme limits. IMHO, I totally appreciate both PL and BL for its quality and physicality as long as the LOTG are enforced.

  6. Ric Fonseca, December 5, 2018 at 3:41 p.m.

    JB and BG:  The LOTG were devised way back when in order to identify the sport by the folks in the UK - actually when the other sport known as "rugby" and "association football" went their separate ways.  So the staid gents in the UK sat and wrote our LOTG, to differentiate the playing rules between "ruffians" (those that were to become footballers/soccer players) and "gentlemen" (those who would gravitate to rugby.)  So fast worwarding to the present, both sports are played almost worldwide, that is where ever the Brits were to go, you know "matey," the sun never set on the good old Union Jack, with their vast navy, military and commercial, they settled and introduced to the new folks they "conquered" and or colonized, the sports, yes, BOTH rugby and association football (from where we get the term "soccer", e.g. from the abreviated "association football . and of course the locals of their vast colonial empire, took to whichever sport sorta suited them.... gooly gee willikers, why do you think Rugby is played in the Rio de la Plata Regions of South America, that is in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brasil???  And yet, good ole Association Football Soccer is the world's sport? But to say the LOTG were written "initially" to promote and even playing field....  No way Jose!!!  So, 'tis PLAY ON!!!!

  7. Ric Fonseca, December 5, 2018 at 3:49 p.m.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that Rugby is also played widely here in the US, sadly it isn't a recognized NCAA supported sports, rather it is a "club sport" that allows/permits undergrads and grad students participate.  I know because I gravitated to rugby after the UCLA soccer and football seasons, in the early '70s learned to play the game (and suffered bumps, bruises and broken ribs) under the tutelage of UCLA's English football soccer-rugby coach, Dennis Storer.  Oh, and BTW, they say that "American Football" grew from the all too loosey-goosey Ruby Union Laws of the Game, and even at the turn of the 20th Century, during the early stages of "American Football" the sport was banned from competition in the colleges and universities due to the "violent" aspect of the game.   

  8. Ric Fonseca, December 5, 2018 at 3:56 p.m.

    Thanks PG, and yes there are more Latinos playing in this weekend's MLS final.  However, I'd prefer that we would have "local" Latino players, i.e. home grown Latinos.  And I do not mean to take the limelight away from the muchachos playing this weekend, but what say we continue this trend and begin - allready!!! - to inculcate, train, recruit, sign, or whtever the heck, local grown Latino players and try to prevent the trend of them going to the countries of their parents birth, where they may just sit and get bored with very little playing time, and maybe, maybe just one or two will actually make it in say Liga MX top tier teams, etc, while others will return home and yes, continue playing, not in MLS teams, but in their local and usually unaffilitated rec neighborhood teams?

  9. Wooden Ships, December 5, 2018 at 7:52 p.m.

    Good article Paul, but don’t get discouraged if the final isn’t wonderful. Your point is correct and this season was better with these two teams and managers. For me having started playing in the early 60’s, my eye test always preferred the skill, movement and rhythm of the game that Central and South America (include Italy and Spain) provided. Music and dance, no stiff hips steeped in those cultures. 

  10. frank schoon, December 6, 2018 at 3:28 p.m.

    It is too bad "Tata" the coach of Atlanta is leaving. He should stay another 3 years to make Atlanta the 'flagship" of MLS soccer. We need someone like him with his experience and know-how to be part of this league in order bring it to a higher a level. He's done such a great job.
    That we don't see American Latinos as talented as the foreign latinos playing in the MLS says everyhing about our soccer developmental program, which has been a problem for past the 50 years.

  11. Bob Ashpole, December 7, 2018 at 9 a.m.

    Let's lose the unrealistic romantic view of soccer throughout the world. Soccer culture is not genetic. Being Latino or from Spain or Brazil doesn't make someone a great soccer player or coach. Being English doesn't make you bad either. Open your eyes and you may find some bad coaches and bad soccer everywhere. Individuals should be judged on their own merits. 

    Over the years I have seen plenty of great US amateur teams and players playing good soccer, but there were always some cultural "Latinos" or other immigrants involved. 

    Commercialization is killing the amateur sport. Even AYSO has lost its focus on fun. Some of us need to rediscover the simple joy of playing soccer. I don't know why, but it is an observable fact that commercialization distorts professional sports and also that national federations and FIFA are rarely agents of change that improve players and play. Belgium, Iceland, Germany and Japan are exceptions. I expect, however, that those four countries have improved their development processes, but not necessarily changed their culture (i.e., view of how the game should be played). 

    Innovation and improvement don't come from the conventional. They come from the influence of unconventional coaches and players and clubs that promote those individuals.

    Right now the USSF conventional thinking about coaching and the game is as far from what I consider "good" soccer as it has every been, and USSF dogma seems as anti-good soccer as the English FA ever was at its worst. 

    I am sure that Stewart and Berhalter both want to make the US MNT program great, but they are stuck in an organization that doesn't want systemic change. Significant change can still be made one step at a time. Baby steps instead of leaps. To butcher a borrowed phrase from the environmental area: Think systemically but act individually. 

    Bob Bradley was fired for finishing second in the Gold Cup. After the inglorious ending to the Klinsmann era and the 2018 cycle, I don't think USSF has set the bar that high for Berhalter. My expectations, however, are high, and my view long term. I know a lot of us have high expectations.       

  12. Ronnie L, December 27, 2018 at 1:01 a.m.

    This article is on point! 

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