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