Cup finals are rarely 'one for the neutrals'

Toward the end of the 2006 MLS Cup final in Dallas between the New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo, a league employee breezed through the press box handing outs scraps of paper so that we journalists, in our collective wisdom, could nominate an MVP. The score was 0-0, and the game had been a washout. The hacks looked at each other in desperation, unable to come up with a single name on the team sheets that might be associated with the word "valuable."

The game went into overtime, but there was no improvement in the standard of play. The league employee nagged us for nominations, but our pens refused to cooperate. Then right at that second, in the game’s 113th tortuous minute, Taylor Twellman scored for New England, and all around the press box the ink suddenly flowed. No sooner had the league employee collected our votes, than Brian Ching equalized for Houston. “Hey, can we have our ballots back?” we asked, only half-jokingly. No chance, said the MLS employee, swiftly exiting the scene with the votes. Houston won on penalties, and -- somewhat suspiciously -- it was their goalscorer Ching who took the MVP award. Twellman should demand a retrospective recount.

That minor incident is the most I can remember from this shoddy excuse for a soccer match, and I’m only dredging that game up now because so many people were disappointed anew about this past weekend’s forgettable final in the Champions League. It seems that in soccer we can never quite get used to the idea that the climax to a competition, which in theory features its best two teams, is going to be a major letdown. That weeks or months of build-up to the decisive encounter do not necessarily guarantee 90 minutes of quality and entertainment. All too often it’s the very opposite.

Nostalgia is generally a poor relative of truth, but in terms of cup finals there is little doubt that the ultimate games used to deliver far more often in the past. Take, for example, the World Cup finals of 1954, 1958, 1966 and 1970, and compare them with the past eight finals going back to 1990. Any of the four games in the first group would top one chosen from the second in terms of both style and excitement. Even allowing for the six goals in the 2018 edition between France and Croatia, it was still a game short on tension or really memorable spells of play. It’s more likely to go down as the Putin’s Umbrella Final.

Is there a reason for this? My theory is that the finals have become too important for their own good. I use the word "important" with a measure of skepticism. Soccer as a game is no more or less important than it ever was. The perception of its importance and the scale of its financial stakes, however, have massively changed. Having made it all the way to a final being watched all over the world, coaches are not inclined to take any risks until they are absolutely required to do so. That might explain why Tottenham Hotspur only showed some attacking inclination in Saturday’s final when it was way too late.

It’s certainly a shame that two attractive sides filled with lucrative amounts of talent failed to put on the show that the global audience was hoping to see. Yet look at the game from Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp’s point of view. The media narrative focused overwhelmingly (and somewhat tediously) on how many times he has been in charge of teams that have lost major finals. Why would he send his team out in an all-out attacking mode only to face a barrage of know-all post-match criticism, and possibly lose his job, if the gamble didn’t pay off? The luxury of an early lead through a fortuitous first-minute penalty allowed him even more leeway to play a cautious game rarely associated with his normally swift and positive high-pressure tactics.

Spurs, meanwhile, registered barely any interest in attacking Liverpool’s goal throughout the first half, as though they saw some danger in scoring too early. Had Liverpool tired and Tottenham scored two second-half goals, then Coach Mauricio Pochettino would now be hailed as a high priest of strategy. Instead, he looks like he was in charge of a team that bottled its big night. In retrospect, he might as well have sent them out with five up front and told them to enjoy the occasion. At least then we’d remember their spectacular, blazing failure. (This kind of cavalier approach may explain why no top flight team, or any other team for that matter, is currently knocking on my door to take over the coaching reins.)

No one in Liverpool since Saturday has been paying much attention to the neutrals sour at a wasted evening watching another mediocre showpiece in the self-proclaimed greatest club competition in the world. Their triumph was, after all, the result of several years’ work, not 90 mucky minutes against a team short on energy and inspiration. Klopp is now being canonized as a fantastic coach with the personality to match, rather than vilified as a failure who can never quite leap the final fence. It’s hard not to be pleased for such a genial, open character who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Saturday’s MVP, by the way, was Liverpool’s central defender Virgil van Dijk. I’d have given it to his teammate Andrew Robertson, who at least showed some offensive clout. The German magazine kicker gave its MVP award to Joel Matip, yet another member of the Liverpool back line. It was that kind of game. Not one for the neutrals, but definitely one for defenders. And, arguably most important of all, for the fans of the winning team.

5 comments about "Cup finals are rarely 'one for the neutrals'".
  1. Donald Lee, June 5, 2019 at 9:15 a.m.

    That journalist immediately decided that a goal scorer was most valuable in a game featuring two Scottish defensive minded coaches doing their thing is an indictment of low soccer IQ of American soccer journalist.  I wish I could say it has improved since 2006. 

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, June 5, 2019 at 8:42 p.m.

    I would be proud to call Ian "American" but the truth is he is European (of Scottish descent). So the best I can do is call him an adopted American.

  3. beautiful game, June 5, 2019 at 9:52 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more with I.P. The CL final was pitiful.

  4. Ginger Peeler, June 5, 2019 at 1:44 p.m.

    Once again, an insightful look at soccer with a touch of humor.  I.P. approaches his subjects from a different angle/perspective than the rest of us, all while sharing useful information. Thanks Soccer America for including his columns. And, thanks, Ian, for bringing a little levity to these pages. 

  5. John Hofmann, June 5, 2019 at 6:31 p.m.

    The 2006 MLS final...I was wathing and felt that one minute or so of excitment, when both goals were scored...boom, boom in extra time, was one of the most exciting one minute (or so) peerios in MLS history.  Significant in my memory is the fact that the announcers, and camermen, were still focused on the Twellman score, and nearly missed Houston's answer.  A camera caught up with the Houston response almost half way through the action.  I am not sure I have ever seen a complete sequence of the winning score, from the moment the ball was kicked back toward the Houston from the center circle, for a long pass down field to Ching.  If that sequence actually exists, complete, on tape, MLS has missed an opportunity I believe to help promote socceer and MLS - it was one of the most amazing moments I've ever seen in all the soccer I've wathced over the years.

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