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

Comments (5)
Comment by Jongudmund 2009-11-24 12:35:05

Last summer I happened to be in Utah and went to see Real Salt Lake play out a fairly dull 0-0 draw with San Jose Earthquakes.

The guy next to me was a season ticket holder and said he only bought his season ticket because he wanted to see David Beckham when the Galaxy came. He also said that he didn't care who won, just that he saw a few goals and an entertaining game (sadly, neither turned out for him).

I thought the overall match experience was great though the talent was pretty lacking. Talking to two fans on the way back into the city on the light rail system was fun. They asked how I thought MLS compared with soccer "where you're from". I diplomatically said that I thought the teams out there would compete with the teams I see live over here, but didn't tell them that I follow a League 2 side.

Still, for all MLS's faults, it's no bad thing for a national league to be feasibly won by any team in the league. And as for aiming for the eighth placed cut off point as a sign of success - what's the difference between that and the mid-placed Premier League teams dreaming of making it to fourth?

MLS might be crap, but at least it's not predictable.

Comment by PRB 2009-11-24 14:14:59

This is my first year following the MLS - Toronto FC - and while the football is maybe lower Championship or League one standard, I definately like the parity between teams. LA can go from a bad team one year to winning the next which is a refreshing change from the Premier League.

But saying that I don't like seeing the playoffs deciding who is the MLS Champion. Teams play 30 games over a a season only for a knockout competition through a few rounds decide who is the winner? I think the emphesis should be on the league winner and by all means have a knockout competition (even including the lower league) with a grand final in a neutral venue to end the season, much like the English FA Cup. But through 30 games the team with the big trophy should be the league winners.

Still, for what is is currently, Sunday nights game was still entertaining and hopefully Toronto - with a sellout 20,000 stadium game in-game out can finally crack the playoffs, or better still, win the league!!

Comment by Reed of the Valley People 2009-11-24 16:25:45

I like that a bad team one year can be good the next, but it wouldn't be so bad if there were a bit more spread within any given season so that there could be at least two or three attractive teams.

I wish they'd make the league competition just a straight table and award the trophy to the winner. They don't play enough games to make travel such a hardship so the conference set-up is unnecessary. If that were the case, the closeness of all the teams in the standings would make for a much more exciting race. The playoffs, which MLS would like to be the showcase of the league, come in mid autumn where the TV sports calendar is chock-a-block with American football and basketball. There's just no hope for MLS to make much in-roads then and, as it is now, the league race is dull because only the really, really crap teams don't make the playoffs and there's no great advantage to finishing first. And yet, the teams all seem to be primarily focused on making the playoffs, at the expense of devaluing the US Cup and all of these other CONCACAF compeitions that get ginned-up every year.

Better to just stick with the straight table and have the league end by the end of August. Then spend the autumn and spring focused on various international cup competitions. Perhaps we could get the rest of CONCACAF to go along with that somehow.

Comment by Rory Bunk 2009-11-25 05:01:21

I have noticed similar problems in Australia's A-League. We have plenty of goals, incident, controversy, slapstick and competitiveness. However, the evenness which the salary cap engenders also takes a lot of the interest away as games become essentially a roll of the dice.

When the top club in the league's longest winning run is around 3 games and every side has lost at least a quarter of their games,there is no real glamour team whose qualities one can appreciate and whose defeats one can truly revel in.

Essentially, the salary cap makes the league like a walk in the dutch countryside. The colours may be pretty, but it's all so flat.

It will be interesting to see if in slowly adding to the number of out of Cap players each squad can sign, the MLS will gently reach a point where competitiveness and topographic interest are nicely balanced.

Comment by radmonkey 2009-11-25 08:26:22

MLS does have the "supporters shield", which rewards the winner of the league with a fan made trophy and a place in the CONCAChampions. Next year, MLS teams will play each other twice home and away, in a balanced schedule.

I don't think playoffs are a bad thing, Mexico's league has grown in popularity since they instituted two short seasons and champions every year. Every team has a realistic shot at winning and it has helped spur a sort of golden age for the league.

Hopefully the league keeps improving and someday soon we can watch Championship playoff level teams!

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