Sunday, November 15, 2009

MLS-Cup bound, so what does it all mean?

As recently as a few short weeks ago, many RSL fans had written off this team.  I’m ashamed to admit that I was among them, thinking that after the loss in Toronto their season was over.  Others went a little further, calling for the head of coach Jason Kreis. 

Now that Real Salt Lake has been on an amazing run through the playoffs en route to their first MLS Cup appearance, some are saying that RSL is overachieving. Others are claiming it's just a sign of the parity in this league.  Yet others point out that success in the playoffs is all about who is hot and has the best form at just the right time.  All of those thoughts have some substance to it, but my belief is that this is really just a case of a team finally figuring it out and living up to their potential.


Real Salt Lake “snuck” into the playoffs.  They needed a win against rivals Colorado and several other results to go their way on the final weekend of league play in order to make the playoffs.  Real Salt Lake had 40 points on the season, the fewest of any of the playoff teams. 

All of this is true, but what people may be forgetting is that RSL is an extremely talented team, and was projected to do much better during the regular season.  They don’t have that 1 superstar, but have a very talented starting XI and a strong attacking style that many would believe to be among the top 3rd of the league.  The team showed this ability in spurts this season, and I think thoughts of them “overachieving” undermines the real quality of this team.


Parity is an invention in American sports driven by economics and controlled by salary caps.  There is no doubt that there is parity in the MLS, as evidenced by the relatively narrow spread between the Supporters Shield winner (Columbus) and the team in the final playoff spot (RSL). 

But the parity argument would lead you to believe that it’s not much more than mere luck as to which teams advance in the playoffs.  I disagree with this assertion, and believe that the two finalists (LAG, RSL) played much better than any of the other teams in this playoff season despite having to go the distance in the conference finals in order to advance.  LAG were clearly the better team against Chivas in the opening round.  They outplayed Houston (albeit slightly) in the finals.  The Dynamo managed to score a single goal (in overtime) in the playoffs, not exactly proving worthiness of achieving the MLS Cup.  Seattle exited the Western Conference playoffs without scoring a goal in two matches.

On the RSL side of the equation, they dominated Columbus in game 1, prevailing 1-0.  They then outplayed them again on the road with a 3-2 victory.  Chicago struggled in the opening match against a lackluster New England team, going down by a goal in the first match, but managing to move on with a 2-0 win at home in the second leg.  They seemed to play large portions of the conference final on their heels, surprising for the “better” team to be doing this at home.

For me not only did the teams that were able to get the results find their way to the MLS Cup, but those two teams were also clearly the better teams throughout the postseason and not just beneficiaries of “parity”.

Right Form, at the Right Time

Although the LAG finished with one of the best records this season, they were not considered one of the better teams all throughout the season.  They struggled out of the gate.  Of course, Real Salt Lake wasn’t a juggernaut either.  So, it’s true that these two teams are playing at their top form of the season. 

However, to claim that it’s two teams of mediocre talent who are just “hot” at the right time would be intellectual dishonest.  The litmus test to this is to ask this question: if all teams returned their same players for next season, where would you rank these two teams?  I think most would put them near the top of the list.

Putting It All Together

So while the issues listed above all have a grain of truth to them, I think the real reason for the RSL playoff success is that we are seeing a talented team finally reach the level that we expected them to be at all season. 

From top to bottom this team is solid:

  • The backline is extremely solid.  Borchers and Olave are perhaps the most formidable center back duo in the league.
  • The midfield when clicking is great at holding possession, executing short-passing in tight space, creative in open space and active all over the field.
  • The forwards are all young, and somewhat inconsistent, but very talented.
  • Nick Rimando is the best keeper in the league with his feet, and as we saw during the PK’s he has great reflexes.

This team is extremely talented – and it’s easy to take that for granted at times.

Whatever the reason is, I’m glad to see them where they belong – in the MLS Cup.