By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 8, 2017) US Soccer Players – It’s been quite the week inside the MLS bubble. The stories around the final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are clear and numerous in the lead-up to an MLS Cup rematch.
We’ll start with Toronto. Can they cap off a historic campaign? The home team has already set a new mark for regular season success. With a title that might elevate the club’s 2017 season to the greatest in MLS history. Can Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore find some level of redemption with an MLS championship? Can Altidore recover from the ankle injury he suffered against Columbus in time to be a major force in the game? Can TFC as a team get revenge on Seattle for the loss in last year’s final, when the Sounders didn’t put a single shot on goal but somehow prevailed on penalties?
How about the Sounders? Can Seattle back up last year’s remarkable run to a title with another championship, elevating the club to elite status in the history of MLS, alongside legendary teams like DC United in ’96 and ’97, Houston in 2007 and 2008, and the Galaxy of 2011 and 2012? Can Stefan Frei match his 2016 heroics in goal, when he made a stunning save to keep Seattle in the game? Can Clint Dempsey make a mark on this MLS Cup final after missing last year’s game due to a heart issue?
Then there’s the weather. The high in Toronto on Saturday should be around 35 degrees. How with the crowd help TFC with last year’s disappointment still on their minds?
Inside the bubble, there’s plenty to talk about, and a healthy measure of intrigue. Anyone who has followed along as the 2017 season unfolded will track each and every one of those talking points. Selling the game to the most ardent MLS fans shouldn’t be too difficult.
For all of that, however, there remains a barrier between MLS and the type of championship game traction it so desperately desires. The ardent, nationally interested group is still small. Those storylines we’re talking about require prior interest. There’s another that may or may not be helpful. This matchup might be the best MLS has to offer right now.
Star power, regular season success, a vibrant backdrop in Toronto. All the ingredients are there. It doesn’t help that the MLS playoff format kills any momentum the postseason generates by straddling the international break.
What MLS lacks is the nebulous notion of “buzz” outside of the two cities represented in the game. The only small bit of controversy that flared up in the days ahead of the match was courtesy of the coaches. Well, one of them anyway. Toronto’s Greg Vanney cast doubt on whether Seattle faced the same sort of intensity in the Western Conference playoffs that his team did in the East. Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer declined to take the bait and Vanney subsequently refined his comments.
We can reasonably expect good soccer on Saturday. Whether or not that means a larger audience for this season’s final is unclear. The quality of the teams might have very little bearing on the wider interest in the game.
There are lots of reasons for that, but they all come back to the League’s niche status in North American sports. It’s that same inability to connect with the totality of the soccer fanbase that exists in the region.
The number of one-off championship games in the world of soccer is few. The only comparison to the MLS Cup final might be the Australian A-League’s Grand Final. That game also suffers from a lack of attention in a country where the sport isn’t culturally dominant and most treat domestic soccer as second-class. MLS Cup aims to be the Super Bowl just as the A-League Grand Final aims to be the Australian Football League’s Grand Final. Both miss by miles.
The MLS Cup final may never be the Super Bowl, but it should aspire to do at least as well as some of the premier European games beamed to the United States. If it can’t, then the question is simple. Does MLS needs put so much energy into a winner-take-all game. Does a cultural affinity for playoffs and championship games demand the same from MLS?
The league has never doubted the place of playoffs. There are more arguments for holding them than switching formats to a single table. Still, as each year passes and the game fails to make a dent in the sporting conscious in this part of the world, it gets harder to see it as anything more than a local event.
Maybe that’s fine, in the end. MLS certainly has other issues to address in its quest to matter more. While the profile and format of the MLS Cup final ties to those issues, it serves a clear purpose for the league, its sponsors, and the media.
What is most frustrating about this 22nd edition of the MLS Cup final is that it does represent something more. It’s a high water mark for the ambition of the teams, and the potential quality of play on the field.
The old soccer axiom says that finals are never good. Neither team wants to make the mistake that loses the championship, and neither coach wants to take significant risks. Last year’s game in Toronto fits that to a tee, so there’s at least a chance this year’s will as well. There’s also a chance this could be one of the best finals in the league’s young history. The biggest question is, will anyone watch?
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