A Losing Team Wins MLS Cup…Does it Matter?

Real Salt Lake, MLS Cup 2009 Champions. Photo by hobbes8calvin on Flickr.

Real Salt Lake, MLS Cup 2009 Champions. Photo by hobbes8calvin on Flickr.

The New York Times’ Goal blog chimes in on Real Salt Lake’s penalty shootout victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy last night, noting that RSL won only two games in the final two months of the season and finishing the season with a losing record, becoming the fourth team to finish the season below .500 and win the MLS Cup.

To crown as champion such a poor performer is either a Cinderella story, an act of sporting absurdity or just MLS being North American. Take your pick.

But belittling RSL because of the format is a little unfair. Real Salt Lake, an obviously talented team, came out in the playoffs and beat (without home advantage) the top two teams in the East and the top team in the West by regular season record. Those four games are not meaningless by any means.

One wonders, though, if last night’s result might be the last that we see of its kind: as the league’s expansion continues, it’s obviously going to much more difficult to be mediocre in the regular season and still scrape into the playoffs, a welcome development. Soon enough, we’ll be at 20 teams and only 8 will make it to the playoffs (presumably).

MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s discussion of a potential change to the playoff format (which chimes with what we posted MLS had on the table here four months ago) at the Supporters Summit in Seattle suggested further advantages would be given for regular season performance, including the higher seeded team hosting the final (MLS’ main dilemma is presumably the possible embarrassment of, say, New England ending up hosting it in front of 8,000).

As for the final in general, an overall television rating of 0.9 is a good sign, beating last year’s 0.8 despite the transition from ABC to ESPN. Criticism of the artificial turf is justified enough, but getting 46,000 out to a final did give it the feel of a big event.

As for the state of MLS in general? The season-end report-cards are appearing, with some fair criticism of the treatment of players by Eric Wynalda and an unforgiving analysis of the league in general on US Soccer Players (a site funded by the US National Soccer Team Players Association): “This season hasn’t done anymore than the ones that preceded it to push this League forward as a product,” J Hutcherson writes.

While J is correct to say that Garber pointing to a few success stories doesn’t mean the failures should be ignored (and Garber was critical of the league in some areas in his address at the MLS Cup), this supposed counter-argument ignores that even just a few success stories are a huge selling point for the league, and that MLS has continued to expand while more or less maintaining its average attendance in a horrible economic environment, doing so with a much more diverse ownership group than a few years ago.

Off the field, it’s crunch time as the players and the league sit down to finalise the new collective bargaining agreement and the league figures out its potentially revamped playoff plans for 2010. The final on the field, at least, was an entertaining end to the season, even for this observer still full of sour grapes. It’s going to be an interesting next twelve months for the league, so roll on 2010.

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