Two quick questions to ponder as Major League Soccer fans ready themselves for a pair of conference finals absolutely awash with weapons grade drama:
In terms of theater and compelling narrative, has there ever been a better set of conference finals? Truly, the menu of evocative story lines just goes and goes with this foursome as New York and New England are set to decide the Eastern Conference, while the Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy prep to settle the West.
Both home-and-away sets begin Sunday; New York and the Galaxy host the first legs. Second-leg deciders follow a week later, and even that is an arresting talking point. Major League Soccer is testing its appeal by playing on the weekend after Thanksgiving for the first time. Check back to see how it works out.
The other question up for review is whether this high level of engrossing subplot will become more standard, a regular occurrence for conference finals as the league continues its growth? It’s not so far-fetched.
Just look at the names coming on board next season, headlined by David Villa, a World Cup, European Championship and Champions League winner. (Sounds a bit like Thierry Henry’s exalted resume, right?) He’ll be joined at fledgling-but-filthy rich NYCFC by Frank Lampard, who may not quite have the bronzed résumé of his Spanish teammate in sky blue, but who certainly has as much (or more) name recognition in our part of the soccer world. They’ll be managed by the highly successful Jason Kreis, play in historic Yankee Stadium (debatable about whether that’s a good thing, but it certainly adds an element of cultural heft) and will have an immediate, hard-wired rival in the Red Bulls.
Elsewhere, Brazil’s silky attacker Kaká becomes an MLS man in Orlando, and with the aggressive envelope pushers at L.A., Seattle, Toronto, etc., hard to say who the next game-changing figure in MLS might be.
Now, back to matters at hand – because the quantity and quality of seductive stories that are about to unfold have been unmatched previously, not even as David Beckham, peerless in his global iconic status, was finishing up his days of making MLS a brighter and sunnier place.
Start with the historical perspective, that the upcoming matches are final victory laps for Henry and Landon Donovan, two of the weightiest figures in league history. At least, we think it’s the winter for Henry’s brilliant career; the “will he or won’t he?” actually adds to the drama. Henry has refused to make all this about him, so he has not actually said he’s retiring – even if it certainly feels that way.
On that same side of the bracket, there’s U.S. international Jermaine Jones. New England is 10-1-1 since his late-summer arrival, so if there has ever been a mid-season MLS arrival with such a freakishly positive impact, they’ll need to remind us. Jones is just an interesting figure, brimming with bravery, style and skill all at once, with lots of personality to frame it all.
He’ll be going against the Red Bulls, a franchise that has been so frustratingly dependable in its inability to exploit resources. Generally, this club has just never been able to get its “S” together. New York, so ample of opportunity but with just one trip to MLS Cup in 19 years, now stands perhaps 180 minutes from its second.
Both coaches in the East also add to the finals’ intrigue, mostly because of their relative youth. New York’s Mike Petke and New England’s Jay Heaps are both 38, about a year and change older than Kreis when he led Real Salt Lake to MLS Cup glory in 2009. Like Kreis, still the youngest coach to claim MLS Cup, the duo is also part of a growing generation of bosses who have carried their MLS playing experience to the sidelines, a new twist for the young league.
The pair of Eastern managers stands in stark contrast to the managers in the West, where the deans of MLS coaching are squaring off. The Galaxy’s Bruce Arena tops the all-time list of MLS playoff wins with 28 (a sensational 28-9-5 record overall.) Seattle’s Sigi Schmid is second with 23 post-season wins (a 23-14-8 record). They are also chief engineers of the Whiney-Pants Express, each too often convinced their side “deserves” glory, a feeling that seeps into the piping around the entire club. It sometimes comes across as entitlement, but when only one of the “entitled” can emerge in success, hard feelings are inevitable.
That’s assuming everyone walks away. As these teams met over the final two regular season weekends with Supporters Shield on the line, tempers flared and tantrums were tossed, and a slew of red cards could surely have been justified. So, expect the swells of acrimony to balloon up anew.
Competitively, what a clash this promises to be. Since April, Seattle and the Galaxy have looked like the league’s premier clubs, and now the West’s well-heeled bullies meet with so much on the line. The winner hosts MLS Cup, which means they’ll certainly be favored over their Eastern foe.
Both rosters are teeming with their own absorbing stories. They start with Donovan, who certainly is retiring and would love to punctuate his unrivaled scroll of domestic soccer achievement with one more MLS Cup. If it happens, chances are good that Robbie Keane will have something to say about it, and days before the final he may well collect a league MVP trophy. He’s a finalist along with Seattle’s Obafemi Martins and New England’s Lee Nguyen, meaning all three finalists headline this set of league semifinals. At least one will appear in the Dec. 7 MLS Cup final. (That’s not to mention the man who would surely have been a fourth MVP candidate, if they named four, Bradley Wright-Phillips; the Red Bulls scoring star, working off Henry’s passing supremacy, matched a league record this year with 27 goals.)
There’s also Clint Dempsey to consider. U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann can grouse about his captain’s career choices, but might everyone see things differently if Dempsey picks up a third piece of shiny hardware for 2014, a Supporters Shield and U.S. Open Cup already in hand? Speaking of Supporters Shield, the Sounders haves just claim their first, along with their fourth Open Cup in six years. So even if “treble” is pretty much a made-up word in domestic sporting vernacular, Seattle is two-thirds of the way to earning it, something no club has done.
There’s the Robbie Rogers angle and the punishingly sad story of A.J. DeLaGarza’s infant son (who died in September) on the Galaxy side. Chad Marshall’s career second life in Seattle may finish with a Defender of the Year honor …
And so it goes. This unprecedented slate of potboilers may be regular stuff going forward, but it sure deserves soaking up for the time being.