December 11, 2016
The no-win scenario at BMO Field turns into the worst-case scenario at MLS Cup
By Michael Lewis
TORONTO -- Several years ago, I devised a scenario in which a team can win the World Cup without scoring a goal.
This is how a horrible possibility can become reality:
All teams in group not only draw all their games, but no one scores a goal. Two teams move on by the drawing of lots. In the knockout round, this team proceeds to advance by playing to scoreless ties and winning in the shootout.
All the way to the final where it continues its non-losing ways to triumphantly parade around a stadium with the coveted FIFA World Cup trophy.
The probability of that happening is probably astronomical, but mathematically it is still viable.
I have two names for this theory: the no-win scenario and the worst-case scenario.
Speaking of which, both scenarios reared its ugly head at BMO Field Saturday night as in the worst MLS Cup in the 21 years the league has hosted that supposedly grand finale.
There have been classics and there have been fiascoes since Eddie Pope scored that header in extratime to lift D.C. United over the LA Galaxy in the inaugural game in the rain and wind at Foxborough Stadium in 1996.
Despite the conditions, the game was well played by both sides and was considered an instant clasico, a championship confrontation that is used as a measuring stick for all MLS Cups.
Don't know if I even want to put MLS Cup No. 21 on a scale and compare it to some of the gems of the past (it would be no comparison).
And about the no-win scenario. While the Seattle Sounders were declared champions, they were not actual winners. According to FIFA rules, both teams are awarded ties when a game is decided by a shootout.
Consider what transpired:
* There was 120 minutes of dreadful, scoreless soccer (and before you say that this writer is complaining about no goals, I have seen plenty of entertaining nil-nil results through the years). This game would have cured insomnia by the 42nd minute, it was so sub-standard.
* The winning side became the first team in MLS Cup history to fail to place a shot on target (the took three shots at goal, total). They had all of three shots over 120 minutes. I've seen the Red Bulls and New York City FC produced that many in 30 seconds. And Toronto FC, losing side, attempted 19 shots, seven on goal.
The Sounders' numbers were the worst of the worst-case scenarios: an MLS Cup champion winning the Philip F. Anschutz Cup without putting a shot on goal.
I give Seattle a lot of credit for the grit it displayed this season. The Sounders found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference and fired long-time head coach Sigi Schmid. New coach Brian Schmetzer spearheaded an amazing revival. And let's face it, it is a great human interest story many writers love to tackle.
Winning its first U.S. first division championship is a big deal for the Sounders, who came close twice before back in their NASL days, losing to the Cosmos in the 1977 and 1982 Soccer Bowls.
As for Saturday night's debacle, the less said the better.
Both teams did an excellent job of bottling up the opposition's most lethal players, Toronto's Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco and Seattle's Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris.
Midway through the second half you got the feeling that Seattle was content to play for the shootout and take its chances for soccer's ultimate crap shoot.
I pity anyone who must put together a highlight reel. Outside of Stefan Frei's save for the ages on Altidore in the first extratime, some of the shootout activity, including Ramon Torres' game-winning kick, and some collisions, I would doubt that most of the 120 minutes of utter ugliness would be a selling point for the beautiful game.
Which brings us to a perennial question: how does one solve playing in a shootout, a mini-competition that has nothing to do with soccer skills outside of a players' ability to convert PKs and some luck as well. After 120 minutes, even the best conditioned player isn't in tip-top shape, which gives even the most important performers -- ie. Toronto captain Michael Bradley -- an opportunity to miss (hey, it happens to the best of them; remember Roberto Baggio and his divine ponytails who missed Italy's final PK in a shootout that determined the winner (Brazil) of the 1994 World Cup).
Before teams get to those tie-breakers, I would love to see a new rule instituted that would require squads to pull at least one player off the pitch in each extratime period. More room could mean more scoring opportunities, unless, of course, the players are totally exhausted.
Speaking of crap shoots, playing your championship game in many parts of North America, especially anything above the Mason-Dixon Line, is one. Even with global warming, you don't know what type of weather you will get this time of the year, and there's a good bet it will be cold.
The last four times the league has held its final in wintry conditions in northern cities, only eight goals were scored (an average of 2.0 per match):
* Nov. 21, 2010 -- Colorado 2, FC Dallas 1 -- Toronto -- winning goal scored as an own goal in extratime
* Dec. 7, 2013 -- Sporting Kansas City 1, Real Salt Lake 1 -- Kansas City -- game decided by a shootout
* Dec. 6, 2015 -- Portland 2, Columbus Crew 1 -- Columbus, Ohio -- The Timbers grabbed an early 2-0 advantage and were successful at protecting it.
* Dec. 10, 2016 -- Seattle Sounders 0, Toronto FC 0 (Seattle wins on PKs, 5-4) -- Toronto -- A game to forget.
Three of those four games were decided in extratime or via a shootout. So, itís probably not surprising that it was played in conditions in which the players aren't comfortable. MLS is playing putting its crown jewel and showcase in such nasty conditions (game time temperature was 28 degrees and the stadium is situated right of Lake Ontario).
Yes, the NFL plays into December with playoff games in January and the Super Bowl (many times under controlled weather in a dome).
A combination of factors caused this, from the league expanding its regular season to 34 games and trying to meander around FIFA's international playing date calendar in October and November (World Cup qualifiers). So, the playoff games get pushed back every year.
Solutions are not simple. Some fans and media would rather have a warm weather climate venue (Orlando, Los Angeles) to host to the final. Others would prefer to remain the status quo.
If you attended Saturday night's game or watched it on TV, there is much to be said about having a partisan home crowd that was not afraid to display its unabashed emotions and enthusiasm for its heroes. That should be part of the equation.
Besides, the team with the most points accrued during the regular season should be rewarded in some way. Is that what home-field advantage in the playoffs are all about?
At the present time, I begrudgingly feel the highest surviving team should host. But here is a slight compromise: how about putting the game on in the afternoon so at least the temperatures wonít be as low? A little sunlight certainly could not hurt. Of course, TV, which drives when sporting events are played, unfortunately will have the final say on that.
One thing is certain: the quality of the MLS Cup must improve or we will keep getting those worst-case scenarios in future finals and no one will be winners.