The price of parity (or, “say hello to your MLS Cup finalists”)

If you follow the North American game in even a cursory way, you’re well aware of the “parity” that is as much a part of Major League Soccer as the word “yeeeeeeeeeeeeah” is part of Max Bretos’s vocabulary: that is to say, the two are inextricably linked, and everyone’s got an opinion one way or another. Setting aside Bretos’s shrill goal-scoring proclamations, let’s take a look at what parity hath wrought: your 2009 MLS Cup final between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.

One team rebounded from being a laughingstock one year to powering itself (if not necessarily its stadium lighting) back into the league’s upper echelons — thanks in part (-time, that is) to their oddly-coiffed British import (no, I don’t mean Kyle Patterson). On the other side, the most-inappropriately-named-team-on-Earth (and that includes the Hoopeston Area Cornjerkers) found itself scraping into the playoffs with a balanced strike force, hard work and determination an extremely fortuitous confluence of tiebreaking outcomes on the regular season’s final weekend.

No matter how they got here, they’re here (well, there — Seattle, that is, this Sunday). Do they “deserve” to be? Your requisite diehard, it’s-not-real-footie-without-promotion-relegation-and-a-single-table-with-no-playoffs crowd will say, of course not. For them, the season ended two weeks ago, and your 2009 MLS champions are the Columbus Crew. But for the rest of us, living in reality, this is what North American soccer is, and is all about.

Canadian (and who knows, maybe some American) readers will recall the “Cinderella run” of the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers, who squeaked into the NHL playoffs as the eighth seed in the western conference and made a run all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, before losing in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes. Fans from coast-to-coast rallied behind the team (even some reluctant Calgarians, I’m sure) partly due to mindless nationalistic fervour (my favourite kind!) but also partly because of their plucky underdog status.

No one questioned whether Edmonton “deserved” to be in the finals because they’d barely made the playoffs. If you make the playoffs, you have a chance at winning the championship. That’s how the North American mindset (and sporting culture) works. Did the Arizona Cardinals “deserve” to be in last year’s Super Bowl, on the back of their 8-8 records in the league’s shittiest division? (Conversely, were the New England Patriots the 2007-08 NFL champions, based on their 16-0 regular season? Nope, ’cause the Giants won the Super Bowl.)

If there could be said to have been an “underdog” in this year’s MLS playoffs, it was probably Salt Lake, mostly because of their last-second entry into the final eight. True, it’s tough to have a real “underdog” in a league where parity is the status quo, but the usefulness of ensuring balanced teams is another issue for another day. For now, let’s just say that the playoff system to determine a champion is the only correct way to administer a soccer league on this part of the continent at the present time, even if it potentially produces champions that, according to some, don’t “deserve” it.

(Really, I don’t think there will ever be a top-flight North American soccer league where the “champion” is the winner of the Supporters’ Shield. The concept is so inimical to the bulk of sports-thought on this continent that the only way it could work is if some billionaire decided to bankroll a league specifically designed to appeal to the fringe Eurosnobs who simply wouldn’t have it any other way.)

So this is what we’ve got. I’ve said that my preferred final would have been LA/Chicago, simply because it would be a perfect storm of promotion for the league — big markets, Beckham, Blanco, Qwest Field — and a great way to end what has been a remarkable year for soccer in the United States (and, what the hell, in Canada too). As it is, ol’ Becks will certainly get the flash bulbs popping, and having made it this far, hell, Salt Lake is capable of anything (maybe even selling out Rio Tinto Stadium one day?)

The game itself should be interesting and entertaining, if for no other reason than every small move — inane in any other game — seems a little more exciting because of what’s on the line. Don Garber would surely spontaneously ejaculate out of every bodily orifice if next Monday’s sports pages were splashing photos of a smiling Landon Donovan and David Beckham clutching the MLS Cup. And despite that horrifying image, and my previous ramblings about how Salt Lake “deserves” to be in the final as much as any other team that gets through the playoffs, we should all be cheering for LA in some small way, even if we have a personal problem with the players, coach, playing style or the city itself.

Because ultimately, the more press that the MLS Cup can generate, the more press the league will generate… more attention, more fans, more money, more teams, better play, better long-term health for the sport on the continent, and more soccer fans grown organically, who’ll appreciate and love the game for what it is, without feverishly worrying about whether the way we do it here is the same way they do it “over there”.

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One Response to “The price of parity (or, “say hello to your MLS Cup finalists”)”

  1. I’ll be cheering for Salt Lake. For Will Johnson (he can take a penalty!) and for all things Utah. And I want salt rubbed into Landon Donovan’s breakup wounds.

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