This Sunday is not just Week 14 of the NFL season and the first weekend of many people’s fantasy football playoffs, it’s also the day of the Major League Soccer championship game. The 2014 MLS Cup will be held in Carson, California, at the StubHub Center at 3 p.m. ET. The game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New England Revolution will be televised live on ESPN. It will be viewed by a sold-out crowd of 27,000 and a few hundred thousand soccer fans on TV. Any single elimination championship game is compelling but this game is even more interesting than most. Coverage of the game is split between those looking at the game as a small lens through which to view the larger story of Major League Soccer and United States soccer in general and those who are focusing on the game as a culmination of months or years of effort. We’ll do a little of both in our preview here, starting with the macro view and then zooming into the micro.
The larger story
The game on Sunday is the 19th MLS Cup. It’s a time to reflect on the history of the league and the current state of soccer in the United States. You might think that next year’s 20th anniversary would be a better time for reflection, but there are forces at work making this year particularly interesting. Major League Soccer began in 1995, the year after the United States hosted the World Cup. And that’s no coincidence, it was very much a part and parcel of hosting the Cup. This year, fans in our country embraced the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team like never before. The team captured the imagination and affection of both die-hard soccer fans and complete soccer neophytes. In the aftermath of the World Cup, interest or at least curiosity about MLS has been high. The league has seen some very positive signs this year. According to a Wall Street Journal story about the league, there has been a 26% increase in television viewership from last season and signed a $720 million dollar television deal with Fox, ESPN, and Univision. There is talk of expanding into at least one, maybe two other markets in addition to the opening of a second franchise in New York, New York FC, which will begin play next year.
On the other hand, the league has taken a few hard knocks during the year as well. Chivas USA, an interesting experiment with having an MLS team function as a second tier part of a Mexican League club’s organization, has failed. The team was purchased by a new ownership group but it will shut its doors for a year or two before re-opening. The United States Men’s National Team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann has been public in his criticism of the league, which can’t be good for the MLS since he’s one of the more well respected soccer figures in the country. There’s also just continuing weirdness that makes the MLS seem like a subpar league. In order to get Manchester City’s owners to invest in NYFC, the league promised they would have special privileges in terms of transferring young players back and forth between New York and Manchester. Add that to the weirdness around bidding between teams for high profile players like Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones and you’ve got a consistent stream of information that suggests the MLS is not sufficiently interested in fair play.
The actual game
If you set the larger picture aside, this game is revealed as being unusually interesting. It’s one of those games where, unless you’re a fan of one of the teams involved, it’s almost impossible to pick a team to root for. Here are some reasons to root for each team.
Why to root for the Los Angeles Galaxy
There’s one main reason to root for the Galaxy and its Landon Donovan. This championship game will be Donovan’s last competitive soccer game. He is retiring from play after the game. You probably recognize Donovan’s name. He’s been the face of U.S. Soccer for the last dozen years. He has been one of the best players and leaders of the men’s national team during that time and scored the most dramatic and memorable goal in international competition since 1989. He’s played with the Galaxy since 2007 and, despite the international presence of David Beckham on the team, has been a central figure in their history throughout. He’s also a very interesting person. He took a brief hiatus from soccer in 2013 for psychological reasons, something that most athletes don’t do. One of my favorite sports writers, Brian Phillips, wondered in 2013 whether Donovan is even “happy playing soccer?” Earlier this year, following Donovan’s last game on the U.S. Men’s National Team, Phillips returned to writing about Donovan:
It’s not so easy to achieve emotional fusion with your avatar-champion when everything from the tension in his jaw to the way his eyes keep flicking to one side of the frame suggests there’s stuff going on with him he doesn’t want you to see.
In his final go around with the national team (after becoming a sympathetic figure when coach Klinsmann left him off the 2014 World Cup roster) and the Galaxy, Donovan has finally achieved a status he almost definitely never sought: emotional fan favorite.
Why to root for the New England Revolution
A long-suffering Boston team has a chance to end a period of losing but to do so they’ll have to beat the winningest team in league history. Sounds familiar, right? It was the sports plot that drove interest in the Boston Red Sox in the Major Baseball league for years or even decades before the Sox finally broke through the hated Yankees to win the World Series in 2004. The New England Revolution will be playing the role of the Red Sox in this drama on Sunday. The Revolution are the only original Major League Soccer team to never have won the Championship or the Supporter’s Shield given to the team with the best regular season record. To break their drought, they’ll have to beat the Galaxy… who play the role of the Yankees in the MLS. The Galaxy have won four championships, four Supporter’s Shields, and several other tournaments. They are playing in their third championship game in four years and they’ve won two of three so far. And, the Galaxy is going to be playing in their home stadium where they haven’t lost since the first game of the season.
If it sounds hopeless, well, it’s not. The Revolution are on a streak as well. They are 11-1-2 since the mid-season acquisition of Jermaine Jones. Jones was the best player not named Tim Howard on the U.S. Men’s National team this past summer at the World Cup. If you don’t remember who he is, he was the one who did this. He’s a completely solid midfielder, brilliant on offense and defense, and a physical presence wherever he goes. He’s joined by two clever attacking players, Lee Nguyen and Charlie Davies. Both Nguyen and Davies have wonderful redemption stories and are easy to root for. Nguyen made is international debut in 2007 for the U.S. team. After a few games, he fell out of favor and left the country to pursue his soccer career first in Europe and then in Vietnam where he is a dual citizen. He returned to the U.S. in 2012 and has flourished for the Revolution, so much so that he was finally asked back for a set of international games this year. Davies was also a promising young international player but his fall from grace was more violent. In 2009, Davies was involved in a terrible car crash. One woman in car (neither she nor Davies were driving) was killed and Davies suffered a litany of injuries including a broken tibia, fibia, and elbow, various facial fractures and a lacerated bladder. Despite that, he recovered in time to make a semi-serious push to rejoin the national team for the 2010 World Cup. He didn’t quite make it back and, indeed, has never quite been the same player since. The player he has become though, is still able to wreak havoc on defenses from time to time. We’ll see if its enough to beat the Galaxy on Sunday.