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.

10 thoughts on “A Losing Team Wins MLS Cup…Does it Matter?

  1. Jeff

    So RSL won the MLS Cup and Columbus won the Shield. Both get a spot in the CCL next year, if I’m not mistaken. The spoils are somewhat similar, I think. The only thing that’s uniquely North American is that RSL get to call themselves “defending champions.” Columbus can still lay claim to the regular-season championship and, like in England and unlike in other North American sports, they have hardware and a spot in the major continental competition to show for it.

    Perhaps both Columbus and RSL should be lauded equally for their achievements, but we shouldn’t forget that MLS does in fact honor its regular season champs.

  2. Bobby

    I don’t care for the playoffs, but I wanted RSL to win it. As silly as the name is, it’s a club built on a solid base, doesn’t rely on gimmicks, and it’s fans travel well. People talk a lot about Seattle and Toronto being “the new MLS”, but Salt Lake is arguably more successful than both. Utah isn’t exactly “cool” though, I guess.

    Well done to them, they knew exactly what had to be done and did it. In my eyes they out played LA. Beckerman was immense.

  3. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Good point, Jeff, though I think the Supporters Shield is undervalued precisely because of the playoffs — teams don’t always fight tooth and nail all regular season, so the honour itself is a little less valuable.

    Bobby — agreed about RSL. Crazy name and non-matching colours, lacking in what we’d call “supporters”, but a beautiful stadium, a good attendance record in the regular season and an interesting, alternate model to sustainability being developed there. Beckerman was outstanding. They underachieved in the regular season.

  4. Dave

    It is has been said in the last year that the modern era of MLS began when RSL came into the league. The reason being the way the franchise and stadium were built and the ferver of the local fanbase. It hasn’t been until after Toronto and Seattle joined the league that we are starting to realize what all RSL did right. Hats off to them for making the playoffs fun to watch.

    Now, my gripes… The title of “conference champion” is silly if teams keep getting bumped into the other side of the bracket. Yes, a MLS Cup berth is also a CCL berth, so there needs to be some recognition of that acheivement, but I think we can come up with a better name for it.

    Also… The Supporter’s Shield champion needs to be given more emphasis. Sure, it’s not as dramatic as a cup final, but it is far and away more difficult to win a regular season championship than it is to win a brieft cup playoff.

    To the casual fan, CCL is a foreign concept. The league needs to promote the idea of contiental play and use that as a selling point that teams can move up to bigger competition against tougher opponents. I don’t know if MLS has any real desire to promote CCL, but they need to spread the word that MLS teams are competing at a higher level to add more excitement and enthusiasm by having more fans know what is at stake.

  5. Jason

    @Tom and Bobby, didn’t they name themselves RSL b/c they wanted and successfully created a formal relationship with Real Madrid? $12.5 million toward a soccer academy for starters…

  6. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Jason — yeah, they have that partnership. You’re right to point that out, and the commercial benefit. But I still think it’s a crazy point of reference for a team in Utah, and why does the uniform match Barcelona more than Real Madrid? Eh, just my opinion.

  7. Micah

    RSL shows the upside and downside of the playoffs. The upside is anything can happen when the second season starts. The downside is a mediocre or not so great team going on a tear and winning a title. I’d prefer to make MLS a single table with the overall points getter taking the cake but I can live with the playoff system. It works well for American sporting interests.

  8. Brandon

    While their were some minor blips in the MLS 2009 season, as a whole, I think the positives out weighed the negatives. This season provided drama with Beckham and Donovan. There was a great expansion with Seattle Sounders. The MLS Cup was a good game that any casual fan could appreciate watching. So I disagree that this season did not push the league forward as suggested in the USSoccerplayers story. This season ended on a high and that is what will be remembered. With the expansion teams coming in the next few seasons I am excited for what is to come. I don’t cheer for the Sounders, but I recognize that what they have been able to accomplish can only help the league. Great momentum going into the 2010 season.

    As for RSL winning the cup. It doesn’t matter. It was a fantastic match and they produced enough to win. Look at the Galaxy goal compared to the Salt Lake goal. Galaxy had pinpoint passing and a well placed finish that is worthy of their ‘stars’. Salt Lake on the other hand produced a scrappy goal that resembled a pinball machine. It is a feel good story and a great way to cap off the league. Americans love to cheer for the underdog and this time they won. And it was fun cheering them on as they progressed. Kind of reminded me of the story of Melody Oudin in the U.S. Open this past September. They may not deserve to be there in the minds of many, but they are going to fight and give 100% nonetheless.