Sunday, December 11, 2016

MLS Cup Review: Darkness and Light

Just google "shitty trophy." This masterpiece shows up surprisingly early.

[Yes, Jesus, the title is tongue and cheek.]

Today, I sat through the MLS Live’s condensed replay of MLS Cup 2016…and, for the record, my minimum charge for re-watching that one-night revival of soccer-as-rugby in full starts at $50. The face-off between MLS Cup debutantes, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, featured two teams desperate not to fuck up and, as such, it heavily favored labor over artistry. (NOTE to author: Overwritten narrative? One that you will never pick up again?) If teams won games by getting in each other’s way, this would have been a final for the ages. In soccer, though, teams win games by scoring goals - whenever and however they score them – and Seattle dragged the game to penalty kicks, where they scored five goals to Toronto’s four. That’s more goals.

And that’s also how Stefan Frei’s bear-paw save became the game’s biggest talking point…

I took the time to read other people’s articles this morning (busy as hell this afternoon; goddamn Christmas), and most sing the same notes – e.g. Seattle never managed a shot on goal, Frei’s save, and the broad argument that there’s not a lot to say beyond that. The “advanced course” of articles offer details that make sense only to those more finely-tuned to some sub-plots – e.g., that this was a particularly shitty final to present to a broadcast TV audience after years out of the spotlight; that Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso would juice the holy shit out of his knee before missing this one; and that, of course, Toronto’s Jonathan Osorio would get emotional after the loss.

After reliving the final (in condensed fashion), I’ll only say I found a couple strings to pull out a little further. One thing that didn’t show in the mini-game is something only one article (by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl) flagged. For me, this was one thought I kept coming back to, especially on Toronto’s side of the ball

“But this was a disjointed affair, with enough errant passing and lost possession that you found yourself saying “Come on, MAN” at regular intervals.”
(Emphasis Wahl’s, and wrong; should have gone on the “on.” Seriously, just say it out loud.)

The Armchair Analyst’s write-up noted other people noting Michael Bradley made the most passes in the game (and by quite a bit; also, other people noticed Bradley made decent account of himself), but, assuming my memory has the power to tell the truth, I saw TFC players repeatedly see the right pass, only to attempt it at a slight deviation from the proper angle. That made for easy pickins for the Sounders, especially the several occasions when they had opportunities to break with Seattle a little upfield. Even here, though I want to amend the record (ugh, can’t find where I read a clean sentence on it…just, take my word, someone said it): Toronto created decent chances and, even if they angles weren’t great, they didn’t always have to shoot through traffic – e.g., Jozy Altidore’s shot (OK, through traffic) in the opening minutes; Osorio got loose near the spot not 15 minutes later, but his stab-shot went straight to Frei; Altidore (again) put a header on frame over Joevin Jones, but the placement (good) beat the power (soft); Sebastian Giovinco wrong-footed a chance he normally buries into side netting at the 49th; Benoit Cheyrou had two decent (traffic-jam) looks in extra time, while Toissant Ricketts pulled TFC’s second best chance of the night agonizingly wide around 108’.

And, of course, Altidore forced Frei to make history just before that. Not sure Altidore wanted to do that favor.

I’m not quite defending the game. The work of enjoying it – and it was work – turned on appreciating just how stoutly both teams defended, even as they did it in different areas of the field. Watching players create space out of nothing, or claw for six inches of open space to peel off even a weak shot: both sides had to sort that out in-game (eh, mostly Toronto; even Seattle’s players acknowledged that much) and that made for a neat little glimpse into on-field problem solving…or for questions about coaching decisions (TFC coach Greg Vanney putting Ricketts in a little late came up a couple times as well). Also, the duel between Joevin Jones and Steven Beitashour was not only epic, it showed how good Jones can be.

My point is that stuff happened, even if a couple steps removed from the (semi-orgasmic) stuff (scoring goals) that brings most of the happy to fans and neutrals watching any given game (goals, man; how do people not get why goals in soccer are so need-a-cigarette-after satisfying? Is that the gateway drug to soccer – i.e., is pulling for a team and seeing them score goals somehow the equivalent/substitute for good, steady sex?). For all the chances TFC created, yeah, only two caught my breath as I waited for relief (sex, again. sorry); and, as noted everywhere, Seattle didn’t give anything in that regard going the other way (just an awful team and selfish lovers, too? Ugh!!) (And sex analogy, again; sorry).

All that said, though, based on the terms of the game in question, Seattle totally won it, and deservedly. In each moment of actual critical performance, the Sounders made their plays and Toronto didn’t. Sometimes teams get lucky; nope, Seattle had a plan and executed it. Call it a shitty plan (and, no, not my favorite), but this wasn’t luck. MLS Cup wasn’t luck and, shitty joke/tweets aside, I don’t begrudge them one of MLS trophies…

…but were they actual deserving champions of Major League Soccer in 2016? No. Neither were the Portland Timbers in 2015. Most of that season? Totally stressful. Look, I know this is North America, and I know that playoffs are how we decide champions in these parts, but, I’m sorry, if your regular season is structured in such a way that what your team does at the end of July – that’s five months into the season – doesn’t matter, your regular season is some form of meaningless. Seriously, beyond having this for a hobby/obsession, what’s my motivation for watching one single fucking MLS game before August? Fuck it, why not September 1? If I’m prioritizing MLS Cup most, what am I actually missing on that level?

Not to go all Westervelt on this issue (and, guys, let’s please make this a verb – e.g., “I think you're seriously Westervelting right now.”), but the only way the regular season means shit is if you get excited about the Supporters’ Shield. Hell, maybe even getting most excited about the Supporters’ Shield.

I didn’t reach this point easily. I know the arguments about MLS Cup versus the Shield and, until sometime this season, I honestly leaned into the “look, this is how we do it (you euro-snob prick)” camp for all my (is it?) 19 years of following this league (this was Season the 20th, yeah?). But, so long as the league structures the playoffs the way they do (ongoing) – and god-fucking-forefend them letting in more teams as the league grows – the regular season is just plain dumb: parity keeps most teams tight all year long, and the team that wins MLS Cup is nothing more or less than the team that gets hot at the right time, and it could be, literally, anyone...which sounds OK when I write it, but, all the same....say, there’s something to track: how well has the MLS Cup winner done in subsequent Champions League campaigns the year after? I can tell you about one – yeah, Portland. Went like shit because, as it happens, the team was two quietly stellar squad guys and a couple injuries away from mediocrity. Winning MLS Cup just covered that up (and probably played a role in causing the two quietly stellar squad guys to move along). Unless Seattle lose key players, and I don't think they will, the same thing shouldn't apply...wait, what happened this past season to us? Was 2015 just 1977?

If you look at the teams who do well year-after-year, and all season long, I’m guessing the track closer to Supporters’ Shield winners than MLS Cup winners. First, duh! Because winning the Supporters’ Shield grows from consistency (STUPID!), but, also, and as pointed out a couple times on this site before, Shield winners send their fans home happy more often in any given year than the team who wins MLS Cup. Those years in which it’s the same team excepted. Of course. What’s more, winning the Shield promises a better next season…well, maybe on paper. I’ll look into this and get back before the end of the week.

So, yes, because I think it’s the correct thought, and because I don’t think I can stomach another long regular season that, in the end, proves nothing, I’m coming around to thinking of the three major domestic trophies – the Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and the U.S. Open Cup – as three entirely distinct, and equally valuable trophies. Actually, not true: once the 2013 DC United team won the Open Cup (actually, just read a Wikipedia page on it that failed to mention how terrible DC was that year; also, that's, like, worst ever), I went to…maybe that one’s a total crapshoot , but, yeah, Cup and Shield, totally equal.

Nah, screw it. This is officially a Shield-first blog. I have seen the light. If I wanted to win one, it’d be the Shield. And I say that knowing that keeps Seattle one up on the Timbers.

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