Galaxy and Sounders give MLS its dream finale, which may only leave people complaining about playoffs

Major League Soccer couldn’t have drawn it up any better: The league’s two biggest franchises going head-to-head for the regular season title, an honor that will not only garner the Supporters’ Shield but also home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Beginning Sunday in Los Angeles and ending next week in Seattle, the leagues co-leaders get two national television dates to prime an audience for MLS’s postseason, and unless the teams meet again in the playoffs (which, in truth, is likely) this will also be the final time we see a retiring Landon Donovan face off against U.S. Soccer’s current Captain America – Clint Dempsey.

If casual fans can’t care about these games, then nothing can draw them into MLS’s regular season – a potential problem, if Major League Soccer hadn’t just signed new television deals. Yet between concerted efforts to improve the league’s on-field product and public (and this week, strange) declarations of the circuit’s quality and aspirations, games likes these provide an opportunity to test the league’s progress. LA versus Seattle … Clint versus Landon, with silverware on the line … Good, watchable team against a second good, watchable team! Can it get any better than this? Perhaps not, which could make litmus test talk unavoidable.

Score high ratings with these two showdowns, and the coming-of-age story MLS is crafting will have its latest scene – a feel-good transition sequence as we tidy up the second act. Continue floundering in broadcast irrelevance, and soccer’s brigade of Nelson Muntzes get a few seconds pleasure as Sports Business Journal tweets the numbers.

That attitude, detractors may note, hints at the age-old debate: Should a soccer league even be entertaining playoffs? Around the world, the regular season reigns supreme, so much so that qualifying it as “regular” is redundant. Beyond deciding a promotion spot here, a relegated club there, there are almost no playoffs. Only MLS, its Mexican neighbors, and a sprinkling of others have allowed themselves to become enamored with such a ridiculous perversion.

It’s trite debate, and no discussion of it is not going to change MLS’s mind (playoffs are here to stay), but if the league’s two biggest franchises fighting for the regular season title can’t get move the needle, how can the league ever convince people to care about its first 34 rounds? Beyond any bullshit larks about authenticity, that question seems like a real issue.

Yet despite how much MLS got from ESPN, FOX, and Univision for the latest television package, there may be a limit to how much improving ratings matter. At least, MLS may not need to show dramatic improvement. Television ratings are down across the television board, not just for sports, so any question of drawbacks to an irrelevant regular seasons face an obvious rebuttal: “To what end?” To be shunned by the networks? See new deal, above. Perhaps corporate sponsor irrelevance? From my limited interactions, adidas doesn’t seem too worried. Fan disapproval? Given the trends around Major League Soccer, that’s a reach, too. Playoffs unquestionably undermine the competitiveness of the regular season, but again: To what end, as far as the league’s viability is concerned?

Regular season irrelevance is not unique to Major League Soccer, a league that lets 53 percent of its teams into the postseason. The National Basketball Association (53 percent) and National Hockey League (53 pct.) also eliminate a minority of teams before the playoffs. They also see casual fans tune out until they do so. Major League Baseball (33 pct.) and the National Football League (38 pct.) allow fewer teams to advance, but only the NFL can been seen as a major TV draw (i.e., among Nielen’s top-rated shows) during the regular season. Television, in general, is going out of style.

We should stop looking at it as a problem at all. At a minimum, a different perspective is needed. If you judge MLS, MLB, and the NBA against the NFL, the lack of regular season viewership is a problem, but who’s crazy enough to make that comparison? The fantasy of the habitual, casual, sports watcher is dead. Regular seasons are now for the turnstiles and hardcores.

Consider that as the debate’s new constraint. In the world where every major sports league was expected to draw an 8.0 ratings with its showcase events, MLS would have a problem. But today, in the world we actually live in, the main standard for a regular season game is its relevance – its appeal to a league’s hardcore support.

Given the stakes, stars, and statures of each team (both in terms of popularity and annoyance factor, to neutrals), Major League Soccer couldn’t have given its fans a better end to the 2014 campaign. If Los Angeles and Seattle can’t get them to punch their remotes, nothing will.

As far as the actual game is concerned …

Sunday’s match will be Landon Donovan’s final regular season home game, an occasion few have time to stomach, given the #LegenD fatigue lingering from East Hartford. People are saving their tears, secure in the knowledge Donovan will have at least two more games in the playoffs. One of those will be at home.

Refreshingly, that gives us a chance to focus on the actual matchup, where so many of the key indicators hint Los Angeles is the better team. Given the Galaxy have to take four of a possible six points to usurp Seattle’s tiebreaker (19 wins, to LA’s 17), the Galaxy will need those indicators to pan out, be they second half form, goals for, goals allowed (and, goal difference), as well was as advanced metrics, like Total Shots Ratio, expected goals (xG), and expected goals allowed (xGA). Those need to be as predictive as the franchises’ recent histories – results which hint Bruce Arena’s teams are more likely to win on these types of occasions.

Still, there are a couple of tactical questions I can’t get out of my head:

  • What does an LA team that’s often looked shaky at the back do if Dempsey and Obafemi Martins get out on the counter (in transition, they may be the league’s best duo)?
  • How can the Galaxy reconcile its tendency to hold the ball with Seattle’s comfort playing without it, particularly if that means exposing Omar Gonzalez? Whereas that possession has been Los Angeles’s best defender this season, it could also play into Seattle’s hands, should LA be lured out of position.
  • Does the presence of Chad Marshall and perhaps a tweak to Osvaldo Alonso’s responsibilities make it more likely Seattle can absorb LA’s pressure? Can the Sounders eschew possession and rely on their counter, hoping a tight defense and the potential penalty box dominance of Marshall gives them a chance of containing Donovan, Robbie Keane, and Gyasi Zardes?

I have no idea, but whereas Arena’s recent title teams have thrived off of picking teams apart in transition, this team’s a ball hog (55 pct. possession, per game). This team thrives on quantity (16.2 shots per game, most in the league) perhaps more than quality. If Arena takes LA to a third title in four years, it will be with a slightly different approach.

What that means for Dempsey, Martins, and the rest of Seattle remains to be seen, but if the teams’ previous meeting is any indication, the Sounders will need a new idea. After its 3-0 win at CenturyLink in July, the Galaxy left little doubt: They still have the Sounders’ number.

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