So here I am. Ready and waiting to deal with whatever my first MLS play-offs have to throw at me. In the past I have been quick to question the system, but in truth it is the play-offs that brought me my finest single moment in football and perhaps even in my short life so far.
It was a glorious afternoon in May 1998 when Wembley stadium played host to one of its finest ever games that decided who would be promoted to the Premier league. Charlton Athletic came from behind 3 times to eventually draw 4-4 against a strong and much fancied Sunderland side. It was everything football should be. The feeling of joyous agony you only get from supporting your own beloved team was ever present. Thirteen successful penalties (with no dribbling in site!) were taken before Michael Gray stepped up and weakly struck the ball into the safe hands of goalkeeper Sasa Ilic. At that second I didn’t know who to love more Ilic or the thirty stone shirtless Charlton fan holding me aloft as if I was the trophy itself. Delirium had set in for the red half of Wembley and to this day I have felt nothing like it.
For me I suppose that day was proof that play-offs can work. But there is a problem. I am no advocate of Jose Mourinho but he once made a typically sharp comment aimed at Liverpool that resonated with me entirely:
“It is more difficult to win the Premiership than the Champions’ League. You have to go all over the country in all conditions, in wind and rain, sleet and hail, on good pitches and bad ones and in the north and the south. And you must keep winning, remaining consistent”
And that is sadly what the play-off can take away from football. A team can be promoted or even named MLS Cup winners not for being consistently brilliant over a season but because of a single bit of good fortune. Every single game matters as much as the last. In 98 if promotion was decided on league merit it would have been Sunderland promoted. There would have been no 4-4 draw, no Clive Mendonca hat-trick and Wembley would not have seen its best ever game. My point is this. No one can argue the play-offs do not bring something special to the league but they are not fair. The key question I suppose is should we be making football as entertaining as possible, or should we be making it as fair as possible? The reality is that Major League Soccer is so unfair it is almost beyond belief. L.A Galaxy who over the season have clocked up 67 points might lose out on the MLS cup to a team with 21 points less than them.
More than most I know the sort of excitement a play-off system can generate but it is conceivable a mid-table MLS team could be crowned MLS champions. I am torn to whether that is the beauty or the beast of Major League Soccer. Is entertainment being but before fairness and if so is that what the public wants? The underdog expectantly winning out, the American dream being realized through football. Without ever even witnessing Major League Soccer play-offs who am I to question them just yet. More importantly if this is Major League Soccer’s identity and what MLS fans want then the system is the right one. I am looking forward to the next couple of weeks and of course the MLS cup with great anticipation and that surely can’t be a bad thing. I will certainly be embracing the MLS play-offs, after all for me to condemn them would be the ultimate hypocrisy.