Saturday’s MLS Cup final wasn’t a game for the ages, though it ended up being a pretty engrossing one and did have its own mythical qualities for future generations. It was the coldest MLS Cup final ever, featured a penalty shootout that went to the 10th round, and we saw Sporting captain and keeper Jimmy Nielsen labor through what may be his last game with broken ribs.
So the highlight reel will tell its story, and it won’t be wrong exactly. But the memories of those who were there at any particular game will always differ slightly from the official history. For one thing, I’ve always believed that, try as we might to impose the logic of highlights onto personal sporting memories, the mind has a way of misbehaving — it always chooses its own, strange thumbnails.
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.
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?
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.
Soccer viewership on English-language stations in the United States is growing. Last week's match between the U.S. and Mexico drew a 1.6 overnight rating and 2.39 million viewers on ESPN, more than double the previous high for a World Cup qualifier on the channel. Fox Soccer Channel may be shutting down, but Champions League broadcasts are a key element to its replacement, Fox Sports 1. NBC paid $250 million for the rights to English Premier League games for three seasons and will televise six live games a week. Executives hope the matches will help grow the presence of NBC Sports Network.
Which brings us to Major League Soccer. In 2011, NBC bought broadcast rights for a fraction of what it paid for the EPL, reportedly $10 million per season. Ratings are improving but are still relatively small. A recent rivalry game between the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders had 209,000 viewers on NBCSN and came at the end of a 10-hour blitz of MLS coverage. The fact that NBCSN would air the domestic soccer league for an entire Saturday is undoubtedly progress, even if the ratings are climbing only incrementally. But national figures are one thing; after attending a few New York Red Bulls games and watching a few more on MSG, I wondered how MLS was doing on a local level. Specifically, were more fans watching games in person or on television?
The Seattle Sounders boast Major League Soccer's strongest fan base, with an average of more than 43,000 packing into CenturyLink Field for the team's home games. Soon, they might have one of the strongest analytical units as well.
Over the past few years, data and statistics have played an increasingly prominent role in soccer. During the 2012 MLS All-Star Game, Adidas debuted the miCoach system, data trackers embedded in uniforms that allowed coaches (and fans) to track players in real time. GPS monitors, heat maps, and other location-based data-collection devices are available to clubs. The league partnered with Opta, a company that collects and displays additional facts about performance, ranging from miles run to sprints completed.
Since joining the Sounders in 2009, head fitness coach Dave Tenney has slowly been building up a sports science unit, attempting to make sense of it all.
It’s been a funny few weeks with Hurricanes, snowstorms, Beckhams, and playoffs in my part of the world, not to mention the three days I spent in a darkened room as I processed the concept of Gerard Butler as a Celtic legend, and the week spent on a Manhattan Beach vision quest with Landon Donovan (before he took the decisive penalty in the MLS Cup final it occurred to me that I’d seen that squat before, just before he hurled marshmallows and peyote onto our campfire).
But the bills have to be paid, and with the second draft of my rewrite on the next Lifetime made-for-TV movie due next week (I can’t say too much about it, but the title is L’étranger and the tagline is “Lindsay Lohan IS Hope Solo”), and the confetti just about settled at the Home Depot Center, it’s time to turn our thoughts to looking back on this year’s MLS campaign.
So without further ado, here are the Designated Player 2012 MLS awards:
For Part 1 of Graham Parker's interview with Kei Kamara, click here.
“Vinnie Jones ”
Kei Kamara is shaking his head and laughing.
“Oh man, Vinnie Jones.”
He’s saying it like I might say, “Hammer Pants.”
“I love seeing him in movies and going to my friends, ‘You know that’s a soccer player, right?’ I mean we have Aurelien Collin, and some of the stuff he does I’m like [peeks through his fingers] ‘Don’t do that!’”
Another incredulous “Vinnie Jones ”
We’re talking about this year’s U.S. Open Cup final, and in particular the moment early on when Osvaldo Alonso, seen pregame as key to the hopes of the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders, dove into a full-blooded tackle on Kamara. I ask Kamara about that “reducer” and when he looks confused by the term, I happen to mention the moment that’s often seen as synonymous with the term: the crunching third-minute tackle by Jones to take out Steve McMahon, which legend has it changed the course of the 1988 FA Cup final:
Once seen as one of the league's misfits, the Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara has found an unlikely home in Kansas City, where he has been at the heart of the Sporting Kansas City team transformed by coach Peter Vermes in the past three years. In the first of a two-part interview with Graham Parker, he and his coach explain why he never settled in at his previous clubs, the importance of mentors in his life, and his move to Kansas City. In Part 2, tomorrow, he talks about the fear of being cursed, his thoughts during the U.S. Open final, and the struggles of playing for the Leone Stars. Oh, and Vinnie Jones.
A snow day has been forecast in Maryland and the few kids who’ve arrived at school are now waiting for the buses that will take them home again. As they wait, snow starts to fall and one of their number hangs back and furtively puts his hand out to grab and taste his first snowflake. He doesn’t want the other teenagers to see — they’ve already been teasing him about his accent, and he is having enough trouble adjusting to his new life in America, without inviting further mockery at his reaction to a phenomenon they take for granted. “I wanted to feel it and I wanted to taste it, but I didn’t want anybody to see what I was doing.”
Jump forward a decade to a park in Kansas City, where Kei Kamara is diving headlong into a snowman in front of a Twitter-sourced crowd of Sporting Kansas City fans, whom he has invited to initiate him into the joys of snowball fights. Unlike the first melancholy scene in the snow, which was captured in the recent Copper Pot Pictures documentary KEI, a club video of the later date shows a young man thoroughly at ease with his surroundings and clearly loved by those around him, as he throws snowballs at fans and teammates alike, laughs and jokes, and learns ruefully just what week-old snowmen are made of: “So here’s me at full sprint and this thing’s like a brick wall ”