Saturday 22 November ~
Sunday’s Major League Soccer Cup final in Los Angeles is the climax to the US domestic season, and looks on the face of it like a battle between a team that deserves to win – the Columbus Crew, who came top of the regular season table – and one that doesn’t. That would be Red Bull New York, the team owned by the Austrian energy drink company that scraped into the play-offs as the league’s eighth best team, but who could, by winning Sunday’s game, become champions.
But the game will also see a meeting of two different playing philosophies. Columbus are stylish (or at least as stylish as it gets in MLS) but solid, built around the playmaking skills of Argentine midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the 35-year-old who’s just won the league’s Most Valuable Player award. By contrast there’s New York, rubbish for much of the regular season (they won ten games out of 30) but who have discovered in the course of three play-off games so far that solid defending, breakaway goals and a huge amount of luck can potentially make you, at least in name, the country’s top team.
New York have a couple of veteran foreigners of their own in former Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel, a sole beacon of flair, and the hard-grafting midfield goal-grabber Dave van den Bergh. While coach Juan Carlos Osorio this week said he takes it as a compliment when people call his team defensive, it was van den Bergh who went out on a limb to back New York’s negative approach. Disparagingly citing his native Dutch side that lost two World Cup finals in the 1970s, he claimed: “I'd rather win ugly than lose beautifully. Italian teams are always ugly teams. Who gives a damn? All you see is four World Cups.”
There’s nothing unusual about a player on a scrappy team saying that results are more important than entertaining the fans, but it becomes a problem when the head of the league agrees. MLS Commissioner Don Garber this week vehemently defended the play-off system, as usual, and said that it’s great when a team like New York can make it all the way to the season’s supposedly showpiece game. ”This thing is an incredible positive,” he told the New York Times. ”When the [New York] Giants get to the Super Bowl as a wildcard or with a .500 record, it’s heralded as an incredible sports story. But when the Red Bulls do it people think it’s a joke. It’s a great story, and we need great stories.”
If only great stories made for great football. But over the past few years, most of the MLS Cup finals have been mediocre spectacles, at best, and much the same can be said of the play-off games that have preceded them. Exciting at moments, yes, but for a league desperate to enhance its reputation and sell itself to a largely uninterested home audience and a sceptical world beyond, the technical quality and standard of play invites unfavourable comparisons. Just the kind of comparisons, in fact, that Garber and fellow league officials are extremely sensitive about whenever press coverage is not wholly positive.
And yet they persevere with a system that encourages nothing but results-oriented football. In the regular season too many poor teams scramble to make the generous cut-off point for the play-offs (this past season, eight out of 14 qualified). Once there, like New York, they suddenly find themselves a couple of results away from glory. If they bludgeon their way to the final, of course they’re not going to play all-out attack in the hope of making some new friends among purist neutrals.
For MLS, a victorious underdog makes a great story. For the development of the league and the game of football in the United States, the present system is considerably less healthy. The best it can hope for this weekend is that ugly doesn’t win. Ian Plenderleith