Beauty or the Beast?- My MLS Journey Continues


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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Beauty or the Beast?- My MLS Journey Continues

  1. JuliquE

    Long-time* reader — first-time replier. Great blog, mate.

    I would say that, with all the parity in MLS, the play-offs are an intriguing aspect to the league.

    On the one hand, you’re right — it isn’t fair to a team that’s been consistently outclassing their opposition, all season, only to fall short or run empty, towards the end. However, it also seems to be in line with the league’s effort to give everyone a shot at glory.

    I feel like better recognition and reward for the Supporter’s Shield winner would solve this particular issue, without the need for massive reform. There are plenty ideas that have surfaced over the years, discussing this very same situation.. so there’s no excuse for why it can’t be done.

  2. JuliquE

    * “Long-time,” relatively speaking, of course

  3. jonny

    That’s the north american sysytem and most wouldn’t trade it for european style crowning the champion after 38 games. With no promotion or relegation the season isn’t exciting enough to be crowned a champion after the schedule is done. There is no incentive for people to attend any sport over here if your team is out of it half way through the season. Most people her look forward to the playoffs, the regular season is just entertainment, the playoffs are what counts.

  4. Adam Waltering

    So, I’m not sure how you’re going about following the playoffs. Might I suggest you pick a lower ranked team and follow them as if they were your own (sorry about Toronto by the way) New York would be a good one for this experiment due to their talent level and the fact that they had a lackluster season, but whichever you want. Follow them as if they were YOUR team.

    While I agree that it isn’t fair to teams like LA who are deservedly the best team this season this format allows 9 other fanbases to get excited about the seasons end rather than one. MLS still needs to make money and grow the sport and this is a good way to do it, by keeping fans engaged longer. Might be a bit of a gimmick but it’s one that we all are used to in the States (although it’s less of a gimmick in other American sports).

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy the playoffs.

    • I think I will follow as an unbiased observer Adam. Enjoyed the two wild card games so far and I expect it to get better. As for Toronto I think they might be in with a shout next year!

  5. RicardoV

    Javier Morales is back.

    I agree that it is a bit untidy to have the MLS Cup winner crowned as League champion. LA is the winner of the league in my mind and Seattle is deserving of of a CONCACAF Champions League slot even without their Open Cup, But, tournament football is deserving in its own respect and I’ve often wondered if the Engerlish folk couldn’t add a bit of relevance to the Carling Cup by having it as an end of season cup with an Europa League spot for the winner.

    By the way, did I mention that Javier Morales is back?

  6. Winston

    I look at the two (regular season vs. MLS playoffs) as being separate entities. The winner of the season wins the Supporters Shield and some Managers have said this is the most important trophy in MLS.

    For those who want a playoff, I see the MLS playoffs as a mini knock-out tournament where the invitations are sent based on season performance similar to Champions League play anywhere else.

    In North America, not having a playoff is not going to help promote your league. Period. On this side of the pond, we love the chance to see an underdog cause an upset.

    If the winner of the league table is so confident in their form through the season, what’s an extra couple of games to conclusively prove it? And if they get put out… oh well, they still have the Supporters Shield.

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