I am now just one game away from the conclusion of my first Major League Soccer season and typically with Major League Soccer the best is yet to come. As expected the play-off games have been delightfully entertaining spectacles that have thrown up some breathtaking drama. However you won’t be surprised to hear that for me they have also thrown up the odd quandary that I need to discuss with my knowledgeable readers.
It is probably best to get the facile out of the way early. One of America’s gifts to the world has been ESPN commentator John Harkes. In his day Harkes was a fantastic midfielder who scored a League Cup final goal at Wembley and won 90 caps for the United States. Despite all of this the dynamic former midfielder risks now only being remembered as the man who said “Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pops” after Mike Magee’s goal during the LA Galaxy v New York Red Bulls play-off game. At first I assumed it was an American reference that I (being a naive young Englishman) didn’t understand. However to my relief it soon became clear that Harkes’ breakfast cereal comment mystified most who listened to it. For those who were not lucky enough to witness it first time round, here it is again:
Wonderful yes, but I am still at a loss to what it means. I’m certain someone knows, perhaps John is even reading this himself and would like to get in touch to fill us in.
So with breakfast over let’s move on to today’s main course: the format of the play-offs. The two legged quarter finals (or conference semis) were all at least interesting to watch, with Real Salt Lake v Seattle Sounders arguably the most exhilarating of the four ties. Played in front of some big crowds the games were great adverts for Major League Soccer and in my opinion could have been mistaken for what is popularly perceived as a much higher level of football.
However the bad news is I found the “Conference Finals” at best to be puzzling and at worst slightly farcical. I say this because I believe they were semi-finals rather than the finals they were in fact advertised as. Just because a game is labelled a final it does not automatically become one. Unless I am mistaken the ultimate prize of the play-offs is to win the MLS Cup and neither Houston Dynamo nor LA Galaxy have done that just yet. So forget the trophies, the award ceremonies and the dressing room celebrations because they were irrelevant for me, nothing has been achieved thus far. In fact I personally do not even see Houston Dynamo as Eastern Conference champions because they were not, they finished second. Their victory over Sporting KC is an impressive semi final victory but calling them winners of a league they finished second in is farcical. I have come to terms with the play-off winners being named MLS Cup Champions and by winning the play-offs I can accept that is just reward. However awarding the Conference titles to the winning semi-finalists is a pointless, confusing and ultimately therefore meaningless exercise. The important line between semi-final and final in MLS play-offs is completely blurred and that is an issue. The Conference finals should be renamed MLS Cup semi-finals and become two legged affairs. The team who finishes highest in the regular season should be named Western or Eastern Conference Champions and then the play-offs can conclude which team is the MLS champions. A winner takes all semi final game after a long season and two legged quarter final is a bizarre system and I cannot be the only MLS supporter who believes that.
Saying that, the flaws in the format have not overshadowed my first play-off experience, I have found them fascinating. I have seen Luke Rodgers upfront with Thierry Henry and Chris Birchall playing next to David Beckham. I have seen Kasey Keller’s last ever professional game and the type of pathetic mass brawl that only footballers could come up with! I have seen bad commentary and fantastic fight backs, competitive and physical football everything I love about Major League Soccer. I am not someone who believes the play-offs need scrapping, just the odd tweak here and there. Of course the best is yet to come with the ultimate prize up for grabs and in two weeks I look forward to watching my very first MLS Cup Final. Until next time, goodbye