On Sunday, the Los Angeles Galaxy will play the Houston Dynamo for the 2011 MLS Cup. The Galaxy were the Supporters' Shield winners this season. Although the venue is officially a neutral site that was announced months ago, it also happens to be the Home Depot Center, which is of course the Galaxy's home stadium. Needless to say, the Galaxy are comfortable favorites, are playing at home, and have a chance to cap off one of the best MLS seasons in history.
But what if the underdog Dynamo win Sunday? Will that be bad for MLS?
Houston finished the regular season second in the Eastern Conference, which is pretty good, but tied for sixth in the overall table, which is not as impressive. Although they won on the road against the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City in the playoffs this year, they didn't get their first road win until September 24, and only had two road wins all season. There is no question that they benefited from playing in the Eastern Conference, since it was considerably weaker and they would have been a wild card with an additional game to play to advance if they were in the West. Added to that is the general distaste many had following the Colorado Rapids' MLS Cup win last season, as the final playoff qualifer whose style could charitably be considered "gritty."
Fans of the league remain divided by the many-headed hydra system the league office has been trying to use ever since it's existence. At the far spectrum are those who don't believe MLS should have a playoff system, period. Within the playoff system itself, on the one hand, there are those who believe MLS Cup should be seeded in a way that the top two regular season finishers, regardless of conference, can only meet in the final. These two approaches come from an understanding of soccer that is more influenced by European soccer leagues, which of course do not feature conferences or divisions and use a single table to rank all teams. In contrast, the conference system is clearly understood to be a defining feature of all major team professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. The regular season is considered in these other sports to be the precursor to the main event, the playoffs, which culminate in a championship game or series for the remaining participants.
Clearly, these are two oppositional approaches, and while MLS has conformed mostly to the latter, it makes for dissatisfaction among many North American soccer fans, who understand the model in Europe that crowns the regular season champion as the true champion. But to general sports fans here in the U.S. and Canada, that proposition seems absurd, as the playoffs are the primary method of determining a champion.
As a result, the stakes of a Dynamo victory Sunday are divided. As a league that clearly craves a certain measure of respect globally, the MLS Cup playoffs often looks to foreigners (especially in Europe) as a strange system. Of course, that detracts from the fact that other domestic leagues around the globe that in fact use a playoff system, which include the top leagues in Mexico and South Korea. Thus, the dominant model that is favored by the top leagues in England, Spain, and Italy is not the only way to crown a champion.
In MLS history, the Supporters' Shield winner has won the MLS Cup five times in fifteen years. The last team to accomplish the double was the Columbus Crew in 2008. It certainly seems like the Galaxy are poised to join that group. But is it a bad thing if the Dynamo win instead? In the end, no. Although many will continue to be upset by a system that gives teams other than the top finisher the chance to be crowned champion, the fact remains that the Galaxy is certainly in charge of its destiny, as long as they can get a result against a less-fancied Houston side.
Sure, a playoff tournament, series, or even single game provides a small sample size that may not reward the side that appears to be more deserving, but the same could be said for a season-ending injury to a key player. Nobody would grant Real Salt Lake the Supporters' Shield because Javier Morales was hurt most of the year and they therefore could not reach their full potential, or the New York Red Bulls the same because they look like the best team "on paper" but never on the field. The Galaxy won games all season and deserved the Supporters' Shield. If the Dynamo win the MLS Cup, they accomplished the goals of the system and should not be denigrated for beating a supposedly superior team.