(Published in The Philly Soccer Page on Nov. 21, 2012.)
For the first time in too long, the best team in Major League Soccer won the MLS Cup.
That’s great for MLS.
Sure, nobody likes to root for Goliath to beat down David, but there were lots of reasons to hope and be happy Los Angeles won last night. Now that they’ve set Houston aside with a 1-0 victory (which would’ve been 2-0 if Robbie Keane had not been wrongly called offside on his goal), you don’t have to think about some team that played as ugly as Colorado getting hot for a few weeks and then parading around for a year as your league champs. You don’t have to spend a year justifying your team’s sub-.500 regular season leading to a league title, regardless of how good Real Salt Lake became in the subsequent two years.
Finally, you get to point to your league’s best team and biggest name players and say, “Those are the champs.”
Then you can look down at Mexico or across the pond to Holland, Scotland, and France and say, our best team can run with and even beat your best clubs in a game that matters, and you’ll probably even be right. You can say, “Our champs can play in the EPL, La Liga, or Serie A, and no they won’t win it, and they likely won’t even finish in the top half, but they could avoid relegation.” Then you’ll look at hopeless clubs like Granada in the two-teams-and-everyone-else Spanish league, the declining level of play in Italy, or Wigan Athletic, and you’ll think for a moment that maybe, just maybe, it’s true.
Even if it’s not, it doesn’t matter.
Because your league’s best team won the title.
Your nation’s best player was the championship game’s most valuable player. The world’s most famous soccer player went out a champ in what’s probably his final MLS game, playing 90 quality minutes with a hamstring injury in what has to quiet even his worst critics. At least half the Galaxy’s starting lineup is good enough to play in good European leagues. (Robbie Keane, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, and Juninho are unquestionably good enough. A.J. DeLaGarza probably is, and Todd Dunivant, Josh Saunders, and Sean Franklin might be too.)
Your league put up the fourth biggest attendance in a single game anywhere in the world this year. It surpassed professional basketball and hockey to put up the third highest average attendance in U.S. professional sports leagues this year, behind only the NFL and Major League Baseball. And MLS also surpassed Brazil to gain the third highest attendance in professional soccer in the Western Hemisphere, behind only Mexico and Argentina. Worldwide, MLS placed 10th in average attendance, and it’s not unthinkable that they could surpass four of them (Holland, France, Japan and Argentina) next season.
It’s a good day to be an MLS fan. (At least until your team inexplicably leaves a cherished player unprotected in the expansion draft the day after the league title game.)
True, the league schedule and playoff concept are still wastelands of silliness, but the fluctuating schedule will likely improve again once a 20th team joins the league. (For the playoffs, there may no hope, as MLS insists on taking the worst of the North American professional sports playoffs rather than the best.)
And yes, teams like New England and D.C. United are still working on the last millennium’s model for U.S. pro soccer.
But with clubs like the Galaxy, Seattle, Kansas City, Portland, Vancouver, and your Philadelphia Union demonstrating what the future looks like for professional soccer in North America and Montreal looking like the perfect MLS market to join them, MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s vision of having MLS as one of the best leagues in the world in 10 years no longer looks unrealistic.
Every year, people talk about whether this was the moment MLS has finally arrived, or when it will arrive, or whatever.
At this point, the discussion might be irrelevant.