A bad way to crown champions
So that was MLS Cup again.
Call me a typical English soccer-snob but I still find the very idea of the game to be just wrong and ultimately self-defeating for the North American league.
Most league’s internationally have the best team in the country crowned champions but the top team in MLS, the L.A Galaxy, weren’t even on show at MLS Cup. Neither were the second best team, Real Salt Lake or the third and fourth best teams New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew.
The L.A. Galaxy who won 18 games in the season won nothing but a rather ignored “Supporters Shield” for being the best team in North American soccer while the Colorado Rapids, who won just 12 games, and finished seventh best in the league are crowned champions thanks to winning a mini Cup competition called Play Offs.
Why does MLS have such an odd way of deciding the league champions?
The first reason is this - it’s what the big-time North American sports leagues do and MLS feels it needs to fit into that culture. The NFL has its Super Bowl and baseball has the World Series. MLS has the MLS Cup.
Play-offs are as American as Thanksgiving and private health insurance and MLS believes that fans won’t buy into a competition that doesn’t value the winners of a mini-knockout more than the team which proves itself to be the best over the course of a season.
The second reason is that MLS feels it needs to have a showcase game in order to promote the sport to a wider-audience. If the league champions were simply the best team, then there wouldn’t be a big day that could be hyped up, put on prime-time and marketed to people who normally watch the NFL or baseball.
Which is, perhaps, all justifiable if you actually get your big day. But what I saw on television was a game played in Toronto, Canada – many hundreds of miles away from either of the finalists, Colorado or Dallas and so with few fans who cared. It was a dull game which finished in extra-time going up to midnight on a Sunday night.
I am English, I love soccer and get paid to write about it so I watched the game. Many American sports fans chose to watch Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New York Giants in NFL’s Sunday night game which MLS inexplicably chose to schedule themselves against. Again, why?
Others will have decided not to bother because they had to get up for work or study on Monday morning. I can’t say I blame Toronto fans for the empty seats that we saw on television – their team wasn’t playing and with all respect to MLS it is not yet of a standard that makes itself an attractive product for the neutral.
That’s the biggest problem MLS currently faces in terms of growth — winning neutrals to television broadcasts. The league seems to be doing pretty well in certain key markets – the Seattle Sounders are doing great with crowds well over 30,000, the Philadelphia Union appear a well-run club with good fresh roots in their community. Toronto have a good fan base despite their miserable performances.
The Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls have signed big names like David Beckham and Thierry Henry to help them get noticed in markets where you need to work to get attention. But why would anyone in Miami or Atlanta or Baltimore or Wisconsin or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or New Orleans care about any of this? The sad fact is they don’t.
Soccer is a wonderful game but it is a great deal more fun to watch if you actually care who wins. The problem with MLS on television is that most of America doesn’t care who wins and the quality of soccer isn’t good enough to attract the neutral who just wants to be entertained. I know a number of soccer-lovers in non-MLS cities who watch all manner of games on television but rarely, if ever, watch MLS.
There isn’t a lot that MLS can do about that except slowly and carefully expand to new markets and gradually improve the product on the field. Although the game on the field can be a mixed bag at times, MLS is generally doing the right things and the standard of soccer is better than many give the league credit for.
But playing the final at a neutral venue is prime-time suicide. It surely makes sense to have the fans of the teams playing within easy travel distance. MLS Cup isn’t the Super Bowl with massive corporate hospitality. A soccer game can be organized at much shorter notice and it would be a far better television product with the atmosphere generated by fans who care.
Play it at the home of the highest-ranked finalist and you would get a cracking atmosphere but, it has to be said, an unfair advantage to one team.
Another idea is to have the final played over two legs — home and away – which would allow fans of both teams to enjoy the final. While that goes against the league’s desire to have a Super Bowl, it is worth remembering that the World Series and the NBA final can go to seven games.
Watching on television, the atmosphere from Sunday’s MLS Cup was underwhelming. It was a pretty drab affair on the field settled rather appropriately by an own-goal before a late flurry of excitement and tension that rather highlighted exactly what had been lacking.
At halftime the MLS commissioner Don Garber used a rare chance to address North American soccer fans on ESPN to talk about the return of the reserve league and the idea of expanding the play offs. Yes, next year the 10th best team, a team in the bottom half of the league, could be declared (bi) national champions.
Next year MLS will have 18 teams — that’s the size of a normal European soccer league. With 34 league games there could also be room for a League Cup competition with a final that could be the league’s big showpiece game. That isn’t going to happen though because MLS and many of the league’s supporters, prefer play offs.
But I agree with Rapids coach Gary Smith, who before the semi-finals said that more credit needed to be given to the winners of the Supporters Shield for the top team in the regular season.
“I think that the Supporters’ Shield should have a bit more attached to it, because all in all, I think everywhere else in the world, that team that is the most consistent and finishes at the top of the single table overall, is the best and most consistent team in the league,” he said.
“I think most coaches and managers will say that to put a group together and to battle out through the season and be the best team, is a particularly big honour.”
It is. And so congratulations to Smith and his Rapids for their Cup triumph and congratulations also to Supporters Shield winners L.A Galaxy.
Let’s hope soon MLS finds a way to make it’s big day a little bit bigger and better.