24 November 2009 ~ North America has a new football champion in the form of Real Salt Lake, the team founded five years ago and named after a big team in Madrid, with whom they have a vague co-operation deal. They are sponsored by an over-priced fruit drink, Xango, which makes scientifically unfounded claims about its healing properties and their smart new stadium's naming rights went to Rio Tinto, the mining company for years associated with numerous environmental and human rights abuses. In the regular season Salt Lake managed eighth place, scraping into the play-offs on goal difference with 40 points with a record of 11 wins, seven draws and 12 defeats.
Their semi-final and final wins both came courtesy of penalty shootouts. And the funny thing is, they deserve to be champions at least as much as any other team in Major League Soccer. There's a second way to look at the statistics. They may have been eighth, but not by much. Even the team with the best regular season record in 2009, last year's champions Columbus, only managed 49 points, so – as always in MLS – the quality gap wasn't huge. Salt Lake scored 43 goals, equal second after Dallas, who scored 50 and didn't make the post-season. Their leading goalscorer, Robbie Findley, totalled 15 goals and only his strike partner, Denmark-bound Yura Movsisyan, came close to double figures with eight, so it's not a team that boasts outstanding individuals. They won MLS in the classic fashion, by coming good just at the right time of the season. They outplayed LA in the final, largely snuffing out Landon Donovan's creativity and leaving a limping David Beckham looking like a beleaguered cockerel who just came off second best in a farmyard fight and had a bad hair day to boot.
There's a view, shared by this writer, that MLS needs at least a couple of consistently strong teams to set an improved overall standard of play in the league, to better represent the league in international competition (the record of MLS teams in the Concacaf Champions League in the past two years has been woeful), and to create a more intensive and less manufactured culture of fan rivalry. LA have long nurtured the pretension that they are a big team, but Sunday's final proved again that they're a hotchpotch of wheezing veterans, eager but not yet realised youthful talent and a couple of star names. Salt Lake outpassed them through central midfield, while LA relied on good old Dave to sling in crosses and make long passes upfield. The American game owes thanks to Salt Lake for thwarting the reward of such a primitive tactical plan and for stopping LA from propagating the impression that they are giants of the US scene.
The final itself had enough moments of tension to patch over a general lack of quality play, with the notable exception of Salt Lake's dreadlocked central midfielder Kyle Beckerman. The league itself loves to see a new team crowned champion every year, as it helps to spread interest around MLS – if almost any team can still end up champions two-thirds of the way through the season there's always hope. From a marketing point of view you can certainly argue the case that it's egalitarian and makes a lot of sense in a league with no relegation. The problem remains with the months of mediocre football that precedes the endgame.
With a well-attended showpiece occasion like Sunday's final, MLS can gloss over the fact that attendances at several teams are down for the season and claim their carefully hatched development plan still looks fine on paper. This is true in terms of new teams and stadiums but on the field the current league format continues to encourage coaches who see making that eighth place cut-off as the benchmark of success. Reaching that goal while clutching at just enough points inevitably comes at the expense of flair, imagination and a desperately needed infusion of more positive play. Ian Plenderleith