By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 1, 2013) US Soccer Players – Ok, I went and wasted my intro in the title, but it’s worth repeating. What happens to Major League Soccer in 2013 if this is another year Houston and Los Angeles meet in the final? We know that the ratings for MLS Cup 2012 fell. The Beckham finale didn’t do the television business the league needs to move forward. Notice I didn’t stick ‘desperately’ in front of ‘needs.’ I’m not sure we’re there yet, but it’s certainly part of the conversation. At some point, television partners are going to expect marked improvement for the biggest game on the league’s calendar. If you want to argue that the MLS Cup isn’t that game, all we’re doing is flattering a league that knows better.
Whether or not 2013 becomes the year to avoid Houston – LA depends on how you read a few things about MLS. Is this a league for the hardcore sports fan, looking for the kind of matchups that favor the subtle tweaks that make one or two teams just better enough to dominate the final season after season? Both Houston and Los Angeles show there’s certainly a high margin for error, turning around dips in form and flat out disappointment to end up in back-to-back finals. Are they simply that much better at gaming MLS, figuring out what to do at precisely the right time to push past the rest of the league? Perhaps, but there’s also the feeling that the rest of the league isn’t doing enough.
Columbus became the market leader in mistiming a run last season, barely missing out on the playoffs with a rebuilt team that should’ve been a favorite. Had they advanced, and obviously, they didn’t, the Crew had the most firepower of any MLS team. Seattle might be in the same category, a team getting it together but failing at just the wrong moment. There’s no guarantee anything changes this season.
Late season, Columbus played out the San Jose scenario, a team with all the pieces and ability that can’t carry through. It’s no knock – ok, it’s a knock – but both of those teams had pieces that shouldn’t work not only fit, but improve their chances. Except it wasn’t quite enough. You can replay the seasons for just about every team in the league in 2012 with ‘wasn’t quite enough’ in mind. The parity in MLS became more about keeping it barely together, and when it mattered that was the hallmark of the LA Galaxy.
That wasn’t the 2011 story, when the Galaxy simply played the best soccer across an entire season. In a transition year for LA in 2013, that’s not likely. Still, is there really enough of a reason to play up the chances for Seattle or San Jose to win an MLS Cup when enough of LA’s pieces are still in play? It’s almost taking Houston for granted in the East, penciled in as the likeliest winner in a way that’s almost unflattering. The expectation is that they’re better than some mediocre teams and a couple of likely disappointments, all of whom could end up in the playoffs. It’s not sterling, and it’s barely complimentary to the second best playoff team in this league for the last two seasons.
The concern, of course, is that MLS’s odd version of parity doesn’t mean very much if we get a three-peat from both MLS Cup finalists. Based on that drop in ratings from last season, it doesn’t seem to matter who wins. This isn’t the matchup that will push the number higher. With MLS fully committed to being the league of what just happened rather than taking the long look at its own history, Houston – LA is already up there with the multiple trips New England made to the post-season. It’s a coincidence that LA beating New England in 2005 and then Houston knocking off the Revs in ’06 and ’07. The point would be the same regardless of who did the winning. Familiarity in this league isn’t a strength when it comes to who meets for the title.
You might have seen the comparison with other soccer leagues, how MLS crowns more teams champions over the same seasons. Ok, and? This isn’t the Premier League, it’s not even close to the league that’s supposed to exist by 2020. It also obscures the basic issue with what’s happening with MLS.
The league changes mightily, almost doubling in size from two different eras of a 10-team league. We’ve seen established clubs fully capable of turning things around in the offseason and in-season. Yet we’re facing the third year of teams with resources, support, and coaching trying to figure out how to be a little better than Houston and Los Angeles when the games count. Is there any reason to think that any of them have that figured out?
Western Conference: Seattle Sounders by tiebreaker
Eastern Conference: Houston Dynamo
Supporters Shield: Seattle Sounders
MLS Cup Winner: Los Angeles beats Houston, again.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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