THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

20 November ~ Following Major League Soccer can sometimes feel like an extended but fraudulent game of pass the parcel. You spend an age patiently tearing off layer after tedious layer of wrapping paper, only to discover at the centre an empty cardboard box. That would be the inevitable anti-climax of the MLS Cup final, the zenith of a season preceded by months of jockeying for play-off games which themselves are shaped by fear, negativity and just the odd rewarding thriller. Come the day of the final, you can't help asking: "Is this all we've got? Dallas versus Colorado on a very cold Sunday night in Toronto?"

That is the line-up for tomorrow's league-proclaimed showpiece game to determine the North American champions. Both teams boast fanbases that are traditionally reluctant to travel across town to their own home suburban stadiums, let alone across country to Canada just as winter's setting in (the forecast is for freezing temperatures) for an 8.30pm kick-off. So given the cost and distance involved – Dallas to Toronto is 1,200 miles, Denver to Toronto is 1,350 – the chance of the kind of intense European atmosphere regularly cited as the ideal by MLS commissioner Don Garber is almost non-existent.

The MLS Cup has produced a handful of quite decent but hardly gripping games to round off the season the past three years. But even if Colorado and Dallas warm themselves up enough to pull off a seven-goal classic, geography, timing and economics dictate that the majority of their fans won't be there to see it. It's the first time ever that Dallas have made the final and only the second time for Colorado, who lost to DC United way back in 1997. It's a bit like Scunthorpe and Blackpool, say, reaching the FA Cup final, only to discover that for marketing reasons the FA has moved the game to Bucharest. In December.

The league, of course, has its reasons for ending the season this way, none of which necessarily seem so absurd when the final's being played on a sunny Californian afternoon. At a one-off game, corporate sponsors can be wooed and schmoozed for days in advance. The league's executives gather and hold meetings to discuss the state of the game, and where MLS is headed next, so there's usually plenty of news to come out of the event, even when the game's lousy. And every attempt is made to talk up the match as the season's big, climactic event.

But whether the game is played on a mild southern afternoon or on a frigid northern night, there's no getting away from the fact that, for the fans of the teams involved, it's a bust unless the venue happens to coincide with the home team. That's happened twice in 15 years, and even then it's inevitably unfair to the team that makes it all the way to the final, only to find they've suddenly become the away team.

A single championship game at a neutral venue is no doubt inspired by the success of Super Bowl, and those suggesting it's a bad idea are politely told that they don't understand the uniqueness of the US sporting landscape. But, yes, we all get that in a league with no relegation, the play-offs are a necessary compromise to extend fan interest right up until the end. Ending those play-offs in a one-off final, however, leans towards crowning an almost arbitrary champion. Last year's winner, Salt Lake, were the eighth-placed team during the long regular season, and declaring an eighth-ranked champion can come across as plain amateur. Especially as they won on penalties.

MLS would be better taking its cue from the way baseball, basketball and ice hockey end their play-offs with a series of final games. A best-of-three sequence between the finalists, with first home advantage given to the team with the best regular season record, would give home fans the opportunity to see their team in one of the season's biggest games, and actually enhance the sense of occasion by stretching it out over the course of a week or so. It might mean dispensing with the junkets and the funfair trimmings that go with a single-game spectacle (so what? MLS uses the pointless All-Star Game for that as well), but at the very least there'd be some atmosphere, and a two- or three-fold increase in the chance of a genuinely memorable game. A pearl at the core of the parcel, perhaps, and a sense that the season came to a fitting competitive end. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (6)
Comment by PRB 2010-11-20 14:05:15

Good article and some good points. I live in Toronto, attend the TFC games and will be in the stands on Sunday night to watch the final but the worry is that there won't be many fans of the actual teams involved. Actually, given the time (8.30pm), the day (Sunday) and the weather (freezing) I worry how many will be in the stands at all. I hope it doesn't fall flat in its face but as much as I'm proud of Toronto getting the chance to showcase itself, I can't help but wonder if it would have been better to at least kickoff in the middle of the afternoon?

You're idea of a three game series is an interesting one, but why not even just a two-leg final? Because of the size of the country it's hard for traveling fans to get to game with any reasonable cost but let's hope we at least get a classic game and a memorable final.

Comment by shanee 2010-11-20 16:25:23

I must say I'm getting tired of Americans whining about the game being in Toronto, and the weather.
Toronto has embraced MLS soccer in a way many US cities haven't and it richly deserves to host this match. Please bear in mind that Toronto is not some unsophisticated backwater like Detroit or Cleveland, or Peoria or Rochester. It's not some frigid Arctic outpost. It's a diverse, cosmopolitan media and financial capital, and North America's fourth largest English speaking market, roughly the size of Chicago. Moreover, it LOVES soccer and MLS is lucky to have a host city this big, this rich and this well-connected around the world that's enthusiastic about hosting its championship game.
As for the weather, it'll be no different from the conditions Colorado experienced at home during the playoffs and if the game were played in New York or Chicago, the temperature wouldn't be that dissimilar.
So, my US friends, please stop carping, and please learn a thing or two about a world city that's right on your doorstep before you knock it.

Comment by Cal Alamein 2010-11-20 17:25:43

A two-leg final is the best bet for fans.

I hope it is well-attended, but can commiserate w/ the true Dallas and Denver fans who can't make it to Toronto.

In 1983, my team Tulsa somehow made it to the NASL Soccer Bowl. It was against Toronto and took place a couple of thousand miles away in very neutral Vancouver. We three diehard fans poured over maps, looked at driving shifts (no stopping for sleep of course) and calculated how much gas we'd need. We wimped out mostly because we were more concerned about the unreliability of our vehicle.

Comment by imp 2010-11-20 17:28:50

Shanee, I'm not knocking Toronto at all (and I'm not from the US either), I'm criticising the use of a neutral location that's so far away for both teams, and which happens to be in Toronto with a late evening kick-off at a very cold point in the calendar. It's the format I have an issue with, not the actual venue. Ian.

Comment by Toto Gramsciddu 2010-11-21 05:12:04

I think you might be surprised by how intense the atmosphere is. If there's one thing that can unite TFC fans, it's our intense loathing of Jeff Cunningham.

Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2010-11-21 15:28:42

If they're already going with 2-leg playoffs, then they should go with a 2-leg final.

However, seeing the crowd in Seattle a few years back, and the potential crowd in Toronto may register all of this common sense as moot.

I just think of Copa Libertadores 2-leg finals, especially Estudiantes a few years ago in their home match against Cruzeiro. It looked like a mix between the biggest rave ever, the Tet Offensive, and the spaceship landing in [i]Close Encounters of the Third Kind[/i]. Surely Dallas and Colorado would be capable of splurging for some fireworks and confetti to start the match.

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