Are you ready for MLS Cup?

November 22, 2009

Major League Soccer’s finale, MLS Cup, takes place on Sunday in Seattle and (perhaps surprisingly to some) the game between L.A. Galaxy and Real Salt Lake will be broadcast in over 120 countries.

For the benefit of those fans outside of the States, who might be tuning in to watch David Beckham play for the Galaxy (or perhaps admire the intelligent midfield play of Real’s Clint Mathis?) and aren’t familiar with MLS or it’s final, here are some answers to the kind of questions you might be asking yourself as you sit down on the sofa and get ready for…

Well no, not really a Cup final. Officially the game is known as ‘MLS Cup’ (or Copa MLS in the league’s Spanish language literature) but unlike say every other Cup final in the world, this is not the final game of a knockout Cup competition. No, this is the game which decides the league champions of MLS.

But what about the team who finish top of the league table? Aren’t they the champions?

What league table? There is no single league table in MLS. The 15 team league has two league tables for the two conferences – East and West. The top two teams from each conference alongside four teams with the next best record in the league overall go into a knockout playoff format and this is the final game of that process.

Ah, so it’s like the NFL’s Super Bowl then, or the World Series. MLS Eastern Conference champions v MLS Western Conference champions?

Got it! L.A Galaxy are the Western Conference champions and Real Salt Lake are the Eastern Conference champions.

But, hold on, isn’t Salt Lake City in the West of the United States?

Yes it is and it plays in the Western Conference. But as five of the eight playoff teams were from the West, Real were moved into the Eastern playoffs – which they won. So both teams in this final are from the Western Conference…

Right…erm, moving on…what’s all this ‘Real’ about anyway? Isn’t it a bit silly to copy Real Madrid’s name when the team has nothing to do with the Spanish giants?

To be fair, the alternative name was apparently Salt Lake City Highlanders and the Salt Lake team, who only joined MLS in 2005, have a 10 year co-operation agreement with Real Madrid which is to include a $25 million youth academy in Salt Lake which Real cough up half the costs for, in return for access to the young players.

However, as this article shows, little has been delivered on the agreement.

$25 million academy…there seems to be a lot of money in MLS. Isn’t Beckham getting something like $250 million for his five-year contract?

No he isn’t. Nowhere near that amount. That widely quoted figure was put out by Beckham’s management team when he signed for Galaxy but it includes an estimate of likely revenue in sponsorship. His actual salary is $6.5 million a year, which is not bad either but not at all typical of the league.

In fact there is very little money in MLS for players salaries – Real Salt Lake’s leading scorer Robbie Findley (18 goals in 27 regular season games) this year earned just $72,000. The MLS Players Union kindly provides details of every player’s salary here.

But if Findley keeps scoring like that he will get a big money move to another club won’t he?

Do you really want me to go into salary caps, drafts, roster regulations etc? Let’s just say MLS is very different from the league you are used to in your country. MLS is called a ‘single entity league’ which means that all the player contracts are actually owned by the league not by the clubs.

There isn’t really an internal transfer market. And as for moving abroad – if say, Manchester City wanted to sign Robbie Findley, they would need to do a deal with MLS not just Salt Lake.

But anyway, Americans don’t care about soccer do they? Will most Americans even know this game is taking place?

Come on, get with the program. 40,000 tickets have been sold in Seattle for Sunday’s game. The main newspapers – like the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today and TV channels like CNN and ESPN have been building up to the game.

Remember with cable or satellite you can watch soccer from around the world pretty much non-stop every weekend from any living room in the States. And quite a number of Americans do just that. If you have the good fortune to meet a committed MLS fan be ready for a two hour conversation covering various aspects of the global game over the past 20 years and to be told about their lifelong passion for Scunthorpe United….

Scunthorpe United?

Or some obscure Irish team or a French third division club. Soccer is a sub-culture in the United States, maybe even slightly counter-culture. It is an alternative ‘scene’ and the fans are intensely proud of their involvement in the sport, take their ‘fandom’ very seriously and consume and debate huge amounts of information about the game locally and internationally.

Yet despite all that they aren’t trainspotters – just very passionate and remarkably well-informed. Soccer fans are basically amongst the nicest people you will meet in the U.S. Oh and its not just Americans, don’t forget Canada is part of MLS too – with a team in Toronto and a future team from Vancouver joining in 2011 with Montreal possibly following.

Expansion franchises eh?

Now you’re getting it….

By the way, who is that white guy with the long dreadlocks in midfield for Salt Lake?

That’s Kyle Beckerman. He’s pretty good actually and could well be part of the U.S midfield at the World Cup. Keeps it ticking in midfield, intelligent passer.

Is he a Rasta or what?

A Reuters reporter asked him that this week and Beckerman replied that his haircut does not reflect any religious beliefs. However he did say that if he was religious he would probably be a Rastafarian.

And that Donovan fellah playing upfront for L.A. He doesn’t like Beckham does he?

Nonsense. Landon Donovan may have made some very critical remarks about his team mate in the book “The Beckham Experiment” and made no attempt to hide his antipathy for how the Englishman was behaving at the Galaxy but he and David are best friends now. The other day they spent two thirds of the pre-final press conference expressing their admiration and respect for each other.

What is that Shakespeare line about protesting too much?

Stop being cynical. But if it goes on like this much longer, they’ll be modeling underwear together….

Hold on a minute, aren’t they playing on a plastic pitch?

The surface is called ‘FieldTurf’ and is indeed an artificial grass pitch. It’s very different to the early artificial surfaces (English fans may remember a very bouncy ‘plastic’ pitch at QPR’s Loftus Road) and is used on a number of NFL venues. Qwest Field is home to the Seattle Seahawks as well as the MLS’s Seattle Sounders.

So American players like playing on artificial surfaces then?

No. “All the players prefer grass” said one MLS Cup participant this week.

What happens if the scores are level after 90 minutes?

Extra-time and penalties if needed — same as anywhere else. The days of the ‘shootout’ with players running with the ball and taking on the keeper are long gone. Shame really, that was pretty good.

So will they be dancing in the streets of Salt Lake or honking their car horns around L.A if their team wins?

OK, MLS Cup is raising its profile but sure, it isn’t the Super Bowl. There will however be several thousand fans from both cities in Seattle to support their team and many more at viewing parties in the pubs back home. The pub has become a central part of the new MLS fan culture as the last few nights in Seattle have proven.

Hmm almost sounds worth going to a game over there, but if I go to America do I really have to call it ‘soccer’?

Well, is it really so bad? Think of the history of that term — soccer was a phrase first used by the English as a way to shorten the term ‘Association Football’ used to distinguish the game from Rugby Football. Charles Wreford-Brown is credited with coining the phrase and if it was good enough for a man schooled at Charterhouse it is surely acceptable for former subjects of the crown to use.

And doesn’t it make perfect sense in countries with other kinds of football (Australia or the U.S) to use the phrase soccer?

But anyway if you really have ‘issues’ with the phrase then don’t worry – almost everyone in America knows what the rest of the world means when it talks about football. They won’t think you are talking about the NFL. MLS probably gets it right with its slogan – Football, Futbol, Soccer (video here).

In other words, take your pick.

Ok, let’s have your pick then. Galaxy or Real?

I’m not a betting man but the form book shows that Salt Lake lost more games than they won in the regular season and only won twice away from home.  But then again this is a Cup final…..

PHOTO: Kyle Beckerman (R) of the U.S. and Walter Julian Martinez Ramos (L) of Honduras fight for the ball during the first half of their CONCACAF Gold Cup semi-final soccer match in Chicago, Illinois, July 23, 2009. REUTERS/Frank Polich


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This article makes me want to claw my eyes out. Look, most MLS teams have better attendance than every SPL team short of the Old Firm. Seattle ranks in the top 50 in the world. Soccer is by far the most popular youth sport in the country. And yes, it’s soccer. We didn’t invent the term. The British did.Know which country has the most people going to SA this summer? The US.Know which country paid the most for broadcast rights? The US.Mine is the first generation to play soccer in large numbers in this country. Wait another generation and you will see the US dominate the sport.

Posted by Derek | Report as abusive

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I’m not sure I get your point Derek.I agree with what you are saying and did actually point out that soccer was a British term.Enjoy the game.

Posted by Simon | Report as abusive

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For anyone who didnt catch the game, Real Salt Lake won on penalties.  /world/news/SP463318.php

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

People said it was a fluke when we made the playoffs. People said it was a fluke when we beat Columbus. People said it was a fluke when we beat Chicago. Now we are the MLS champions. What more can we do! RSL is the Real Deal whether you like it or not

Posted by Real Salt Lake Fan | Report as abusive