Friday, November 21, 2008

Winning Ugly, As Good As It Gets In The MLS?

On Sunday, the MLS season draws to a close rather than reaching an exciting climax.

The Columbus Crew take on Red Bull New York in what threatens to be a travesty of justice.

Columbus, who finished on top of the standings with an impressive 57 pts, face not the next best team in the MLS, no...that would make too much sense, no they take on Red Bull New York, who finished eighth.

The MLS take a similar approach to their grand final as the NFL, teams must progress through a playoff system, so it beggars the question, why put so much effort into the season and finish top?

I'm not having a go at the NFL, their system is perfect for what they do.

This match could have huge consequences for the game as a whole in America. The two teams in the final are polar opposites in every way imaginable.

Columbus Crew are probably the best footballing side in the MLS, and with playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto recently named as the league's MVP, it would seem that the league recognise this, too.

The 35-year-old Argentinian and ex-Boca Juniors player only signed from Columbus at the start of the 2007 season, and with his 19 assists and seven goals, is largely responsible for the dramatic turnaround at the Crew.

His 19 assists makes him the second most creative player in a season, behind Carlos Valderrama, who holds the current record of 26 assists, from the 2000 season, Valderrama was 39 at the time.

In contrast to Columbus being the nicest side on the eye are Red Bull New York. Owned by the famous energy drink company, they scraped their way into the playoffs, only winning 10 games all season and finishing with 40 pts.

But they have discovered that by playing defensively, hitting teams on the break, and riding their luck through three playoff games, they are on the verge of becoming the best team in America.

New York's main players are also veteran's of the game. Juan Pablo Angel provides the cut and thrust up front and is the sole provider of flair in the team. Dave Van Den Bergh is the key to the defensive setup, and his role in midfield has been key on their road to the final.

Recognising the negative approach that New York employ, Van Den Bergh recently commented, "I'd rather win ugly than lose beautifully. Italian teams are always ugly. Who gives a damn? All I see is four World Cups."

There is nothing wrong with the Dutchman's view point. As a professional footballer, he makes his living by winning matches.

What is cause for concern for the MLS as a whole is that Commissioner Don Garber seems to agree.

"This thing is an incredible positive, when the Giants get to a Super Bowl on a wild-card or with a .500 record, it's heralded as a great story. But when the Red Bulls do it, it's a joke? It's a great story and we need great stories," he said when asked about New York's poor record.

It's one thing for a player, especially on a winning team to come out with comments like these. It's another thing completely for the Commissioner to issue them.

The problem with Garber's comments is that he is condoning the negative approach that New York employ. He is also condoning teams finishing outside the top places in the league. With the game in its infancy in the States, he should be promoting the "beautiful game" instead of promoting New York's style.

For the last few seasons the MLS Finals have been poor matches. And the playoffs haven't been much better.

The league in America is desperate to enhance its poor reputation, both home and abroad. And it won't entice fans with promoting "winning ugly." The technical quality of the game is viewed unfavourably around the world and this cause won't be helped by the best team not winning the league.

That the MLS have decided to stick with the playoff system is strange to say the least. Too many poor teams qualify for the final run-in (eight from 14).

The MLS would be better served with a more conventional approach to the league. The team who finish top should win, and if it's romance they want, then a proper cup competition would make sense.

The league also has an over-reliance on older foreign players. The game needs the profile that some of these players provide, but surely it would be better served by letting youth have a chance?

Red Bull New York winning the final might provide a great story. But it won't do the league any favours in the long run.

One can only hope that ugly doesn't win this weekend.

twitter / WillieGannon