Major League Soccer’s championship playoffs come down to the next-to-last round this weekend, and I find myself experiencing an unfamiliar sensation. Could it be…excitement?
I still maintain that the MLS playoffs are, fundamentally, a bit of a wash. Knock-out tournaments just don’t work well as league-championship deciders in soccer. A two-legged series is a totally different form of competition than a balanced league schedule. Playoffs devalue the regular season by admitting too many also-rans and failing to reward season-long performance. Like every other irritating soccer nerd in the nation, I’d rather see a straight home-and-away championship and a separate league cup. (MLS, incidentally, also secretly believes its set-up is bunk. Why else would it effectively scrap its conference structure as soon as the season ends, creating such geographical non sequiturs as last year’s New York Red Bulls victory in the “West” and this year’s Salt Lake run in the “East”?)
But let us set such tiresome pedantry aside. Now that the second string has gone home and we’re down to three single-elimination games, MLS is giving off a faint vibration of major-ness usually absent from its humble dealings. This weekend’s conference finals will take place at the league’s two showpiece stadiums, LA’s Home Depot Center and Chicago’s Toyota Park; the final will grace the plastic grass at Seattle’s otherwise attractive Qwest Field. The production values at all of those grounds are a notch above the league’s perennially low average in that department; put some fans in any of them, and it suddenly looks and sounds like actual big-time soccer might be taking place. To wit:
The league must be excited, too, that its three biggest names—LA’s David Beckham and Landon Donovan, Chicago’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco—could meet in a final in its shiniest new stadium. Chicago, home to some of the league’s most passionate fans, hasn’t won a title in a decade. The Los Angeles subplot—with its bitchy pre-season Donovan/Beckham feud and possible triumphant redemption—offers just about as much intrigue as a threadbare baby sports circuit could hope for. A Chicago/LA final is just about MLS’s dream match-up.
So we’ll check back next week, eh, before the dramatic Houston Dynamo/Real Salt Lake championship game. Hey—such are the perils of major league existence.