By Clemente Lisi – Carson, CA (Nov 20, 2011) US Soccer Players – The joke in the press box at the Home Depot Center on Sunday night was that it had been the fault of the large contingent of English journalists credentialed for MLS Cup (there to see David Beckham) who brought the rain with them to Southern California. The weather was once again the protagonist after last year’s freezing finale in Toronto, as a record sellout crowd of 30,281 at the HDC witnessed the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo on a field that had been drenched by a daylong storm.
Hollywood loves fairytale endings, and that is what MLS got this year. The team coached by Bruce Arena won the title in a year where they captured the Supporters Shield and got their best season out of Beckham.
It isn’t a stretch to say this Galaxy team is one of the best in MLS history. The stats tell the story. With the second-most point total in League history, losers of just five games and unbeaten at home, the Galaxy deserved the title following Landon Donovan’s game-winner in the second half.
“We never gave up. That was our mantra all season,” a beer-soaked Donovan told me after the game inside a jubilant Galaxy locker room. “It’s an incredible feeling. We really worked hard. It’s amazing.”
Following the Galaxy's epic year, here is what the MLS season taught us:
Flawed Playoff System
MLS still hasn’t really figured out the best postseason format. The addition of four wildcard berths added excitement to the end of the regular season, but the problem were the playoffs. Playing eight games in 12 days was not great. Then Los Angeles and Houston were given a 13-day break between winning their respective conference championships and the final. To some extent, FIFA was to blame for the break because of its two fixture dates. However, the problem wasn’t so much the long gap, but the format.
The wildcard play-in was a single game and conference semis were home-and-away. That was followed by single game conference finals. Changes are coming. The League announced Sunday that the playoff field would remain at 10 teams in 2012, but with some improvements. This time, the top five teams in each conference qualify with no wild cards. The #4 team in each conference will host #5 in a one-game elimination match. The conference finals will change to home-and-away, followed by the final hosted by the team that amassed the most points during the regular season. The final will not be played at a predetermined site.
Crowds, Crowds, And More Crowds
The regular-season average of 17,872 for attendance broke the all-time high for the 16-year-old League, beating out the record set during MLS’s inaugural season in 1996 of 17,406. Seattle’s average of 38,496 made it the attendance leader for the third straight season. The Pacific Northwest rivalries also helped push MLS at the gate as expansion sides Vancouver and Portland drew 20,406 and 18,827, respectively.
There were also healthy crowds throughout the playoffs (despite a rare October snow in New York for its game against LA) and for the MLS Cup final at the HDC, where makeshift bleachers were added to accommodate 5,000 more fans. The average attendance for 12 playoff games, not including the final, was an astounding 19,025. It has taken 16 seasons, but the fans are coming – and more will stick around as TV ratings rise, stadiums are built and the quality of play gets better each year.
One place where the quality isn’t getting better is Canada. Once again, fans had little to cheer about. With three weeks left in the regular season, 15 of 18 teams were mathematically alive in the playoff race, but it did not include Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. While crowds continued to attend games in Toronto, enthusiasm remains rather low. That loyalty could eventually end and turn into an attendance drop should the team fail to turn things around soon.
Next year, Canada will have a third team. The Montreal Impact is already training and signing players. The expansion draft this week will give Montreal a new roster and a sense of what direction it may be headed. All three Canadian franchises can only hope to use the offseason to build teams that can compete in 2012.
If netting goals is the whole point of the game, then Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes remains the most-consistent scorer in the League. He finished the regular season with 16 goals (losing the tie-breaker for the Golden Boot award to DC United's Dwayne De Rosario after assists were taken into consideration) to show that 2010 was no fluke. Wondolowski was named 2011 Castrol Index Player of the Year for his productivity, which included 103 shots on goal.
Wondo is a wonder to watch. So is De Rosario. Problem is, both the Quakes and United failed to make the playoffs. For the second straight year, Wondolowski carried the Earthquakes on his back. De Rosario, who was named League MVP last week, did the same after he started the season in Toronto, was traded to New York and ended up in DC. It was a real shame neither player was in the playoffs. Both the Quakes and United need to bring in reinforcements in order to get back to their winning ways.
Once again, the New York Red Bulls were trampled by the competition. The forever futile franchise failed miserably even with marquee players like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez. Depending on whom you ask manager Hans Backe is either the League’s best coach or worst. In reality, he's probably closer to the middle and public comments like not realizing the Gold Cup was scheduled and would cost him players doesn't help.
The Red Bulls had gotten off to a solid start, but things fell apart after the Gold Cup and only made the playoffs as a wildcard team. Backe’s goalkeeping carousel (the team used a record four and spent a designated player spot on Frank Rost) added to the confusion. The defense sleepwalked through the season and Marquez, who harshly criticized his teammates, got a three-game ban following a fracas with Galaxy players in the first leg of the conference semifinals. A lot more work needs to be done if New York wants to challenge for the MLS Cup next year.