Evidently, there are two ways to look at Real Salt Lake’s penalty-kicks upset of the Los Angeles Galaxy in last night’s MLS Cup Final. Either SLC’s victory, after a season in which it won matches about once a month and a playoff run in which it scored a goal about every 200 minutes, is a travesty that makes the league look like a joke. Or the annoyingly/inspiringly dogged performance by the club with the league’s lowest wage bill makes an excellent underdog story, and marks MLS as a welcome departure from the predictability of the English Premier Manchester United/Chelsea League.
Just to deepen the paradox, it happens that both these view are correct.
On one hand, Real Salt Lake didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs, let alone on the podium. Somewhere deep inside MLS’s fortified headquarters, Don Garber weeps today at the memory of a bunch of hirsute and unmarketable nobodies from Salt Lake City—what, was Topeka unavailable?—scampering off with the bauble intended for the coiffed Beckhamites. The league has only itself to blame. The fact that a club with a losing record can make the championship tournament only means that the league has given itself an extremely bad case of Small Sample Syndrome. The format sets up a ping-pong-random roulette game in which anything can happen and, unfortunately, does. The message SLC’s triumph sends the rest of the league could hardly be worse, aesthetics-wise: tack together a cheap, stingy little outfit; grind through the season, grimly accumulating points and refusing to allow anything exciting to happen; make the playoffs and just let it ride. Not a harbinger of a sudden outbreak of Jogo Bonito in MLS any time soon.
On the other hand, tough shit, and Jogo this. Soccer fans often act like the sport is about joy, beauty, creativity and the sound of young men’s laughter. In fact, if you look at the rulebook, it’s about winning. Neither is it a rational enterprise designed to spit out fair results based on objective criteria. Like life itself, football is a crazed and desperate adventure which sometimes—but, trickily enough, not always!—rewards guile, luck and fortitude over quality and breeding. Those who would posit otherwise live in a fantasy world. As Al Swearingen, sage of Deadwood, once said:
“When did you start thinking every wrong had a remedy, Wu? Did you come to camp for justice? Or to make your way?”
Real Salt Lake came to camp to make their way. For that, good on them.