An otherwise glorious 2016 was ruined this week by the Seattle Sounders. The Sounders overcame a huge deficit in the popular vote to win MLS Cup over Toronto after the shootout or rap battle or whatever it is soccer uses to pick winners rather than picking winners. Looks like the Serenity Prayer is in for a worse beating than Seba Giovinco.
Although we're still picking pieces of the bodies out of the wreckage, it's never too soon to ask how such a thing happened, and how it can be prevented in the future. But first, we should congratulate the Sounders on their championship, overcoming a terrible start both in the season and the final itself to win glory for its fans all over the world.
We should, that is. But we're not going to. We'd rather swim in kitten blood. In any case, Sounders fans, even by MLS fan standards, feed off the nourishing sustenance of opposing fan rage. Congratulations and respect are thin, watery gruel in comparison. Seattle is the number one team in Major League Soccer, so that's the number of fingers we will show in their honor. Hatred, not imitation, is truly the sincerest form of flattery.
Like most victories, this too had a thousand fathers, even if most of them were mothers. The weather was non-cooperative, to say the least. That's probably going to be a constant risk. The most television-friendly date on the sports calendar in the fall is the Saturday after the college football conference championships. Only the regular season in hockey and basketball were on the calendar. The other option, counter-programming on Sundays against the National Football League..well, let's just say that's been tried already. We're stuck with early December finals until MLS can beat college and/or pro football's regular season. In other words, for the foreseeable. The weather is always going to be a factor. Unless we'd care to reconsider the LA Galaxy dynasty? No? Okay. It's on the table if you need it.
The penalty kick shootout is a disgrace to the game; yea, an abomination. It also fits perfectly in a television window. Philo T. Farnsworth is unbeaten and untied against Eduardo Galeano. If the global capitalist corporatist media spider is afraid people will change the channel away from a WORLD CUP FINAL going into OVERTIME, then down-home mom-and-pop MLS Cup has no chance. We're lucky they even let us have the half-hour of overtime, if you want to get grisly about it.
So cold weather is always going to be a possibility. Crappy teams trying to luck/bunker ("Blunker"? "Bluck"? There should be a word for this. Shouldn't there be a word for this?) their way past talent is always going to be there.
Do I have to make the playoffs versus single table sidetrack? I suppose I must. MLS has now reached the point where playoffs finally draw as many or more than regular season games. The trend throughout American sports over the past century and change has been away from the single table and toward playoffs, and there's no reason to think soccer is immune. So for a refreshing change of pace, let's make a philosophical instead of financial defense of playoffs.
Seattle can make the case that they are the best team in Major League Soccer - well, besides the shiny cup they just snagged. Their record since acquiring Nicolas Lodeiro has been - you know what, life is too short to look up freaking Seattle Sounders stats. For practical purposes, they were undefeated. By the end of the season, the Sounders had assembled the league's best team. They were given the chance to prove they had assembled the league's best team on the field, and did so.
Midseason roster changes haven't always worked out in MLS, the same way that zeppelins haven't always landed safely in New Jersey. But there have been a few spectacular successes. Jermaine Jones, for all intents and purposes (even intensive purposes), took New England to the final in 2014, and nearly won it. The Revolution were not the best team over the course of that season, but they were probably the second best when December rolled around.
The first time midseason roster moves truly paid off was in MLS' first season. In 1996, what was then officially called Washington DC United took the field with a roster than fell short of ideal. Search and replace Juan Berthy Suarez with Jaime Moreno, and a dynasty was born. I know, there was more to it than that, but there's no way DC United gets its first two stars without Moreno.
Similarly, Robbie Keane replaced Juan Pablo Angel for the Galaxy in 2011...and you're going to have to take my word for this, because the statistics don't back up how important Keane was. I have little but the assist in MLS Cup 2011 to back up my assertion that the Galaxy don't win the championship without Keane, or with Angel. But I was there, gosh darn it, and that's how I remember it. Can we pretend Keane's gaudy production record for LA in subsequent seasons count as proof? Thanks, I appreciate it.
As long as teams are allowed to tinker with rosters, though, there's a great case to be made for teams being able to prove it on the field. If you truly want every game to count equally, well, freeze the rosters on opening day (or, First Kick, if you will). Besides, every game does count equally...until the playoffs. Then every one of those games count equally, give or take an away goal.
With playoffs, the teams don't compare goal totals over the course of months, or wait for fate and math to decide a champion. It's much more simple and satisfying. Two teams enter, two teams leave. One of which is the winner. I mean, let the losers live, we're not Aztecs here.
What if a team has key players injured come playoff time, like Dallas and Colorado? Well, um, that's a shame. But injuries can deprive teams of players during the regular season, too. And tournament injustice due to untimely injury has a storied history and a bright future. Neymar is probably the last recent example, and Cristiano Ronaldo's health in that same World Cup doesn't stand up to much scrutiny either. Ronaldo was poisoned by evil forces before the 1998 final - I forget what the popular conspiracy theory is, but it should have something to do with hypnotizing Brazil into forgetting to cover Zidane on corner kicks. At least you can put in substitutes these days. It was unreasonable to ask Dallas to replace Mauro Diaz or Colorado to get over losing Tim Howard, but Seattle would not have chosen to go to war without Clint Dempsey, either.
So. Seattle won MLS Cup, despite having about as many shots as Jenny McCarthy's children. Is there nothing we can do?
This may sound like a radical restructuring of the game, and an indictment of the gentlemen who play the sport. But I suggest that an impartial arbiter be appointed and placed on the field itself during games. That way, disputes over foul play can be resolved in real time, instead of leaving such questions to be decided among interested parties. Interestingly, this was suggested as early as 1891 in all sanctioned matches, but the idea was apparently okay, you get the joke by now, I'm sure.
Alan Kelly did not invent the "Let 'em play" school of thought, so it's probably unfair to put the blame at his shoelaces. But if the public wanted to see people clumsily bashing into each other, the Buffalo Bills were playing just down the road the next afternoon. The rules are on the books, and the cards are in the pockets. This sport needs to realize that they are there for very good reasons. Giovinco is a star for Toronto, but not for the Maple Leafs or Alouettes. Once the Sounders were allowed to knock him down without consequences, the nature of the game was decided.
Yes, I'm aware that Altidore cheerfully adapted to Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots rules. Yes, I'm aware that free kicks were a considerable risk to give up - but if the alternative wasn't worse, Alonso and friends wouldn't have chosen that risk so often.
I'm not even saying the Sounders wouldn't have won anyway. They should have won a game of soccer, is all I'm saying.