Earlier this year, after a particularly fractious clash between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, I wrote a piece calling this MLS’s most interesting rivalry — not the fiercest, not the most historically relevant, but the most interesting. Why interesting? Because it had arisen out of the way the teams play. Now we have the chance for a very public referendum on which style works better, as the two clubs are due to meet in the MLS Cup final at Sporting Park on December 7.
So after a frantic week, the playoffs are nearly done. From 10 hopeful teams we’re suddenly down to four, and among the teams out of the running, there are a whole heap of autopsies already under way — especially in New York, L.A., and Seattle.
After a frenetic burst of games seemingly every other night, we’re halfway through the conference finals, but now face a two-week wait before the second legs.
The four weary teams remaining are now trundling slowly across the plateau toward the final on December 9, and this seems as good a time as any to catch our breath and ask, “What just happened?” In particular, I want to look at the teams that just left us, because we never really had a chance to say good-bye.
It was a rather crazy set of results this past weekend in MLS. Only one team out of a possible four that could have clinched a playoff spot did so. It was yet another reminder that the one consistent winner in MLS this season has been forced parity, though it was also a reminder that teams have consistently shot themselves in the foot after getting into positions to pull away from their rivals. It makes one wonder this: Does anybody want to win the Supporters' Shield?
Some months ago, I found myself walking through an empty fairground in deepest Brooklyn, to a U.S. Open Cup first-round game between Brooklyn Italians and Icon FC. I made eye contact with half the crowd, watched a stray ball bounce into a Dumpster (where presumably it still remains), and heard every shout from the benches — mostly because I spent most of the game wandering between them. The key was low. I was in heaven.
After that game, I followed the winner, Icon FC, to their next match, and have continued to follow the winners of each successive game until they lost, then followed the fortunes of the team that beat them. Some of those accounts are up on Grantland already. Some, like the tournament they reflect, have so far been caught up in scheduling woes. But arriving for the final in Sandy, Utah, where Real Salt Lake will take on D.C. United for the Cup, it has occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever really explained what drew me to this tournament in the first place, and why you, the American sports fan, should care. So here's a short version of just why any sports fan with a pulse should follow this tournament.
The bare facts first: It’s taken 30 weeks, but as of Friday night, Seattle are top of the MLS Supporters Shield standings. The Sounders beat reigning leaders Real Salt Lake 2-0 in front of 55,000 people and leapfrogged into first place, just as the regular season winds up.
As far as the crowd went, it wasn’t quite the 67,000-plus that saw Clint Dempsey’s home debut against Portland, but I wouldn't fret too much about falling attendances. Seattle, basically, have a lot of fans. And when more than 50,000 of those fans show up, Seattle win — at least the eight or so times it has happened so far. Whether that means that the money spent on Dempsey might have been better spent employing 10,000 film extras for Sounders home games, just to be on the safe side, I can’t say. But 55,000 people showed up on Friday night and the Sounders were easy victors, going ahead after three minutes and never looking back in the most important game of the year.
One of the rewards of following a league closely over time is watching the organic development of rivalries. I’m not talking about the preset rivalries of geography, or, in a relatively new league like MLS, the wholesale adoption of rivalries from other sports. In a way, I’m not even talking about the folk rivalries sustained by fans. No, I’m talking about rivalries that first and foremost are kindled by events on the field, and that may flare up and subside with a generation of players and coaches accruing histories and resentments with each game.
Writing for the Guardian the other day, I gave the example of the Manchester United and Arsenal rivalry of the turn of the century — where the ongoing battle for supremacy between the two best teams in the Premier League became almost a footnote to the increasingly bizarre soap opera of player interaction. From the early king-of-the-ring brawl sparked by an innocuous-looking tackle by Winterburn on McClair, the business of titles going back and forth between Old Trafford and Highbury was peppered with flashpoints: Keane vs. Vieira in the tunnel, Keown taunting Van Nistelrooy, Pizzagate. Though on reflection, perhaps what I’m talking about is more in the fashion of the mutual enmity between Chelsea and Liverpool that emerged in the Mourinho and Benitez eras, seemingly from nowhere — certainly from two teams who’d never particularly regarded each other as natural rivals.
Not for the first or last time in his life, Machael David was approaching a fork in the road. Seventeen years old and carrying a UK passport bearing someone else’s picture, the young Nigerian found himself confronted by two lines in the JFK Airport immigration hall. Tired and hungry (he hadn’t known the food on the trans-Atlantic flight was free), and speaking only rudimentary English, the young man now faced a moment of uncertainty as to which line to join and, looking for a sign, slowed to a halt. Irritated by the sudden blockage, a family group pushed impatiently past him and headed for the shorter “U.S. Citizens” line. David smiled and followed them gratefully, thinking: “This must be where the black people go ... ”
Seven years later, I’m standing with Machael David beside a soccer field in Florida, and he’s telling me, “I’m glad that I was caught. It enabled me to go through everything that has happened since.” The route from a harsh fluorescent-lit interview room at JFK to speaking with reporters at the MLS Combine has not been a straightforward one, but then neither was the path that brought him to America in the first place. For David, it has become the norm for the lucky breaks in his life to first appear as crushing disappointments.
It’s perhaps why he’s so upbeat and positive when we talk, despite what has been a disappointing Combine for him on the field. When we first speak, he’s just come off the field after his final trial game, playing in his favored holding midfield role, after he had been positioned in an unfamiliar right-back role for his previous games. His performance has been tidy (David’s favorite player is Claude Makelele, that most reliable of cogs in flashy teams’ engine rooms), but despite his constant talking and organizing, and vividly colored boots, it possibly hasn’t been as eye-catching as it needs to be for a game played in audition mode. At every turn, David chose the neat pass, the simple interception, the teammate in space. For all his wider spiritual belief, founded in personal experience and his Christian faith, that the right opportunities in life will reveal themselves, part of me finds myself wishing that just for today he’d been more selfish in forcing the issue and grabbing the coaches’ attentions on the field.