Real Salt Lake's MLS Title: Al Swearingen Weighs In

SEATTLE - NOVEMBER 22:  Kyle Beckerman #5 of R...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

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.

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About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
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3 Responses to Real Salt Lake's MLS Title: Al Swearingen Weighs In

  1. Marc Herman says:

    To park the bus and wait for a penalty or a breakaway against the flow of play is a time-honored, if cowardly way to win a soccer match. Italy’s world cup win comes to mind. Scottish teams and lately Russian teams have been frustrating Barcelona with this stuff. It works. It was going to happen in MLS eventually.

  2. doriangray says:

    You say “Just to deepen the paradox, it happens that both these view are correct.” I agree.

    I have been a football* fan for 26 years and live in the Philly area. I want to enjoy MLS, I really, really do. I already hold 6 season tickets for the expansion Union. I have resigned myself to the fact that the league is a joke. But, since you mentioned the EPL, I look at the MLS Cup tourney like the FA Cup, Coppa Italia, Copa del Rey in Spain, etc. All clubs at all levels play so sometime mid-tier squads take the silverware. I know they have something called The Open Cup for MLS, USL and below but who really cares two shits about that.

    MLS has no true champion because the top division format has been “Americanized” into East/West conferences and playoffs a la the NFL. They played the final on artificial grass for Christ sakes.

    I just enjoy it for what it is and accept that I need to travel overseas a few time a years to watch proper football live.

    (*If calling soccer “football” make me a snobby piece of Euro Trash that’s brilliant as far as I’m concerned. Come on you Spurs and Forza Juve!)

  3. Zach Dundas says:

    I actually thought RSL played a reasonably positive game in the Final. It’s just that their ability to sneak into the playoffs (through the trans-conference backdoor, no less) does not speak well of the league’s set up and would be a grim model for other clubs to follow. Of course, if you look at the number of draws even the best teams play, it’s obvious that they’ve figured out that slow and steady can win the race in MLS.

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