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Strange Trip

The whole MLS Cup Playoffs were a strange trip, capped by Colorado’s 2-1 overtime win over FC Dallas last night in Toronto.

First off, having looked at it several hundred times, I’m no longer sure Jair Benitez clipped Conor Casey’s ankle on the controversial non-penalty call. He did kick him (or try to kick him) in the shoulder, perhaps in retaliation for the shot from the grassy knoll that felled Ugo Ihemelu, perhaps just because it was a chippy game that referee Baldomero Toledo had no interest in policing from start to finish.

David Ferreira‘s goal was gorgeous, Casey’s goal was opportunistic, the winning own-goal was unfortunate, and the guy from Volkswagen – flown to Toronto and put up in a hotel to do one thing and one thing only – was a dipshit. That’s pretty much MLS in a nutshell, folks – brief moments of brilliance interspersed with grit, pathos and people who haven’t the slightest idea what they’re doing.

As for the latter, MLS called a pregame press conference to announce changes to the playoff format for 2011, then embargoed the information until ESPN could break it at halftime with an interview with Commissioner Don Garber. After the inevitable escape of said information nearly as soon as it was disseminated, Garber came on and said, in essence, there’d be two more playoff teams next year, they weren’t sure of the format, but give us 30 days and we’ll have something to show you1.

Naturally, the populace went batshit, as they normally do. “Two more playoff teams?” some said. God forbid. MLS has had eight playoff teams for its entire existence, and while that was 80% of the league for half of its first eight years, it’ll only be 56% of the teams next year and a lower percentage as time goes on and teams are added.

But that was only the appetizer. Garber also said the league is going to spend the next couple of years determining if a switch to “the FIFA calendar” (i.e. playing from August to May instead of March to October) makes sense for the league (leave it to the English to twist that so it looks like a done deal). Apparently they’re going to spend a lot of time and money figuring out whether or not that’s the way to go, because FIFA boss Sepp Blatter thinks that’s the big thing holding America back (note: Sepp Blatter says a lot of crazy things).

I’m sure that sent the fanboys into a tizzy because, outside of a single table and promotion and relegation, nothing acts like Viagra on them like the notion of playing at the same time The Rest Of The WorldTM plays (it’s always lost on people that, in the southern hemisphere, playing from August to May basically means they’re playing through their summer, just like we are)2.

I used to just dismiss such talk without thinking any deeper than “It’s cold in Foxboro in January.” And, while it’s true that it is cold in Foxboro in January, I’ve lately been kicking around this idea (which I thought I’d written here before, but which I can’t find, so I’ll go over it again):

  • An MLS season that conformed to TROTWTM would play roughly from August to May.
  • Now, does MLS currently play in August? They do. How about September? Yup. October? Yes, they do. November? Yes, the playoffs are in November. Do they currently play in March? Yes, and a 34-game schedule (a balanced one, another Soccer Geek Nirvana) is likely to start in early March next year rather than mid-March. How about April? Yep. May? Yessir.
  • So, in essence, they’d be trading half of May, all of June and July and part of August, when they currently play, for the rest of November, all of January and February and part of March, when they currently don’t play. Is that really a hugely negative tradeoff? In some places, yes, you’re going to struggle to sell tickets in the dead of winter. But in some places, they struggle to sell tickets in the summer.
  • I’m not 100% married to this line of thinking, mind you, but I am thinking more realistically about it and wondering if trading those 90 days in the summer for about the same amount of time in the winter makes as big a difference as people think. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know. But MLS attendance (until recently) wasn’t fantastic during the mid-summer weeks anyway. Can it be 100% worse in the winter? Colorado sold out the Eastern Conference final in freezing weather. I don’t believe they’d get that on a Wednesday in February for a game against Montreal, but there might be ways to work around it.
  • There are other complicating factors, of course: I don’t know that you’d get a national TV deal with ESPN (or even Versus) for a weeknight game of the week with college basketball and hockey going on. The US Open Cup would be a challenge, as – and I can assure you of this – the United Soccer Leagues ain’t gonna follow you and play in the winter and PDL teams only have their college players between May 1 and about mid-August. And you’d still occasionally have to stand down on FIFA-mandated dates because they don’t all fall in the summer months.

I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know this. There’s a certain set of people in this country whose thoughts on MLS go something like this:

“As soon as they get rid of the shootout, give the referee control of the clock (which has to count up), get rid of overtime, allow draws, give teams European-style names, sign better international players but nobody over the age of 30, align in a single table, have promotion and relegation, have a playoff system that ensures that only the two best teams in the league will ever meet in the final, have a reserve league, raise the salary cap by a couple million dollars, televise games on channels that I already get at times that are convenient for me, let us yell “You Suck, Asshole” on the opposing ‘keeper’s goal kicks, give us all the tickets we want for any road game we want to go to, play in nothing but downtown stadiums, put a team in Detroit, put a team in Atlanta, have MLS Cup hosted by the higher seed, align with the FIFA calendar, stand down on FIFA dates, do away with single entity, pay to re-open the Soccer Hall of Fame, get shirt sponsors for everybody, put up more billboards, raise the minimum salary, expand rosters, win games in the CONCACAF Champions League, take the US Open Cup seriously and bring back the New York Cosmos, then and only then will I pay attention to the league.

As long as an Englishman is announcing the games. And all of the goals are really pretty.”

That’s what we’re up against.

1 – By the way, Alexi Lalas‘ question may have been the worst one ever asked in the history of the medium. If he would have asked Dan Quayle a question like that, I think the Earth would have opened up and swallowed them both.
2 – I loved the comment on where the one guy said it would give the league “more of a soccer feel,” as if it’s felt like a singles mixer to this point.

10 Responses to Strange Trip

  1. Okay (because Dave Lifton asked), Lalas’ question wasn’t the worst one ever, it was just one of the most awkward. It took him 22 seconds to ask this:

    “So, under this scenario, you said, a 10th-place finishing team would be – could possibly win MLS Cup. Uh, in, uh, 1996, we had 80 percent of the teams making the playoffs, and we’ve, uh…moved on to now, where fifty percent of them thing. Is there anything that the league is looking to do to make…say, the Supporters Shield winner, give them more benefits going forward?”

    At some point, you could almost hear Paul Gardner yelling at the TV, “What’s your question, Alexi?”

  2. Ya know, I used to scoff at the notion of switching the schedule, but once you sit down and really think about it, like you have pointed out, maybe it’s not so crazy after all.

    I read a story by Beau Dure that suggests the possibility of taking Jan. and Feb. off for a split season.

    As for the Open Cup, you could always schedule the first couple rounds MLS teams enter for July, which would be their pre-season. Perhaps we would see more teams willing roll out their starters against the USL clubs. Cup games could also be played on weekend dates, opening the possibility for larger crowds and more attention.

  3. What you do with MLS teams is less of an issue than what you do with PDL teams and lower-level USL/NASL teams. Because, like I said, USL (for one) ain’t going with you. NASL is just crazy enough to maybe try.

    I don’t know why in preseason they’d be more willing to play their starters in a tournament they don’t take seriously now, when preseason is about getting ready for what has obviously been prioritized: the league season.

  4. You could still start the tournament in the normal time frame, with the two pre-MLS rounds in June, then the MLS clubs come in at July.

    Now that I think about it, I could see the MLS teams still running their reserve players players out there to “see what they got”.

    The fact is, the Open Cup has never really been a big money event anyway, and I don’t think it never will be. Through the research I’ve done, I’ve found out that in the 60’s and 70’s, the teams that hosted the final often lost money on the event. The USFA would take their cut of the gate, but not contribute anything in terms of prize money. After paying to have the visiting team flown in (which was often a cross country flight), the hosts were in the red.

    The fact that Seattle drew 35,000 for the final just means the final may be getting more attention and respect, not necessarily the whole tournament.

  5. Or it could mean that Seattle can draw crowds.

    Who knew?

  6. You forgot “run ads in newspapers”. I won’t watch any more MLS until they start to take out ads in all the big newspapers.

  7. I am sick and tired of having to listen to Englishmen call my soccer games. Bring back JP. And that Tomasch guy, if he’s still around.

  8. Nope, he is no longer. And with each passing day, he is less and less concerned with calling soccer games.

  9. Maybe I’m an ass (probably more than likely), but I want Wynalda back in the booth. Let’s get some misdirected venom out there to really give the broadcast some bite.

  10. I want to see how the 10-team playoff field is set. Surely the opening round isn’t two-legged, even if it ends the MLS standard of all teams getting a home playoff match.


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