The Ultimate Prize?- My MLS Journey Continues

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



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13 responses to “The Ultimate Prize?- My MLS Journey Continues

  1. Hey Jim,

    I completely agree with you on the play-off format. It baffles me that we have a 1 leg wild card round, then a 2 leg quarters round, then back to a 1 leg semis and a final. Either every round (barring the finals) should be 2 legs or we should scrap the 2 leg tie in the quarters.

    As for the trophies and celebrating East and West Champs, welcome to North American sports. This isn’t a unique idea to MLS (although we do have a ridiculous number of cups and trophies). Do in part to the size of most North American leagues (usually 30 teams) and the fact that every league but MLS plays an unbalanced, conference based schedule, most people feel its necessary to celebrate winning your conference in the playoffs as well as the overall final. The naming can be a little confusing but that’s North American sports for ya.

    • It’s all about making sure every team gets to sell tickets to at least one home game. If it weren’t for that, I’m sure they’d have the entire playoffs be one game affairs.

  2. Adam Waltering

    Glad you’re enjoying the playoffs! The naming of the Eastern and Western Conference champions as mentioned by Nate is the norm in North America, but also I should mention that no one really cares who was the conference champions, its usually just a title used by commentators. Fans of a team don’t brag about their team winning a conference.

    Now to the meat of this post. Shimmy shimmy cocoa pops (it’s actually puffs) is a lyric from an urban childrens jump rope type song (also made famous by the Nelly song Country Grammar which he slightly changed the words) so I’d say that is the origin of John Harkes’ unfortunate use of the phrase during his broadcast. I, for one, can’t stand John Harkes as he has supplied me numerous facepalm opportunities but I think someday I’ll be sad to see him go. He’s sort of the John Madden of MLS, good soccer brains but horrible speaking ability.

  3. For what it’s worth, conference champs get $30,000, split 50/50 between the team and players(according to old CBA).

    • Registrado

      Which works out to $500 each on a 30-player roster? The Generation Adidas players might appreciate it and buy an iPhone w/ some accessories with all that cash, but for the Designated Players, it’s just an extra income claim their accountants have to deal with to avoid paying more taxes.

  4. Leonardo

    As a brazilian trying to follow the MLS I must say I was also suprized to see that the semifinals were being called ‘Conference Finals’ and trophies were given to teams for simply making to the final of the league. Americans seem to love trophies. They give one to the league champions, two for the conference ‘champions’, one for the best team in the regular season and I don’t know how many to winners of derby games played as part of the MLS season.

    Also bizarre is the fact that there seem to be no ‘MLS Champion’. There is a MLS Cup Champion, a Suporter Shield Champion and two Conference Champions. What would you say if someone asked who was the 2012 american soccer champion?

    On top of that, I really don’t understand why the final of the league has to be east vs west. Why reward geography instead of merits? Actually I think I don’t understand why there are conferences since every team play each other home and away. Is it just to resemble other US sports? Shouldn’t the playoffs be 1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, etc? The most logical and simple form of eliminatory competition.

    Even if there were more that 20 teams in the league and an unbalanced schedule,wouldn’t it be more logical to make 1st east vs 4th west, 2nd east vs 3rd west, and so on (quarterfinal, semifinal and final)? So that the best teams could reach the final, instead of artificially forcing a team from the east to face one from the west in the final. I just don’t see the advantage of this current, confusing system.

    • tallwhiteninja

      The MLS Cup winner is officially considered the champion, and that’s what most would tell you if asked. Purists will contend the Supporters Shield winner is the champion (or at the very least, should be). No one cares about the conference champs, at all.

      • Registrado

        Exactly. Plus Leonardo, I heard in the Commissioner’s (Garber) annual “state of the league” address, they will be reworking the schedule to make it unbalanced, more regionally-based next year (to be announced around the time of the MLS Cup final).

        Since they’re doing that, it would also make sense to take the extra step and go to the single-table system and drop the conference farce in general, but I’d be surprised if they’ll go that route for 2012. Maybe some day.

  5. spark

    I remember shimmy shimmy cocoa puffs from the movie Big. Tom Hanks and little John Connor from Terminator 2’s ginger sidekick – that was their secret BFF handshake song.

  6. Kelly Jo

    I think the problem with the Eastern and Western Championships in MLS is that it’s trying to be like other American sport championships, without the history to back it up. In the NFL, you have the AFC and the NFC championships. When a team is the NFC/AFC champion, they roundly celebrate with confetti, trophies, champagne, etc., before they move onto the Superbowl. Same thing with MLB, with the ALCS /NLCS before the World Series. The difference between the NFL, MLB and MLS is that MLS had never separate, competing leagues. In both the NFL and the MLB, there were leagues that eventually merged and joined to create a joint overall championship. Naming a champion of that league and then having that champion go off to face the champion of the other league, at least makes sense in a historical context. As time has passed and fans just view it as one overall league, the individual trophies already had historical relevance. With the MLS, it just feels forced. Conferences seem to exist for little reason other than scheduling ease (which, hey, I can get on board with). The conference championships are, as you point out, nothing more than semi-finals and really should be treated as such.

  7. From an American, you nailed it on the playoffs. The current format is HORRIBLE. I like having playoffs, but the conference finals thing needs to be abandoned.

    One reason I like the playoffs is it give teams a chance to do something rare, that I think LA will pull off this year: Take the shield and the cup. It’s an interesting distinction for teams that can put together a whole season, and play their best in do-or-die situations.

  8. prizby

    you think thats weird jimmy…check out ray hudson; i think i tweeted you a link to my favourite youtube clip

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