It seemed like a good idea at the time.
With the LA Galaxy having come off two lucrative MLS cup wins at home, and with the memory of very poorly attended and cold 2010 MLS Cup in Toronto (officially listed as a sellout despite thousands of empty seats clearly visible) fresh in their minds, MLS decided that future cups would no longer be played at a neutral venue designated beforehand. Instead, the league’s marquee match would be hosted by the club with the better record of the final pairing.
There are some sound reasons for making such a decision. It does reward teams for regular season success. It also ensures that home fans can see their team play in a championship game easily, which hopefully leads to fewer empty seats (MLS cup tickets were being sold on the secondary market for more than $350 last week)
It’s one thing to reward teams for good play in the regular season. But to allow the possibility of an MLS cup to be hosted in December in more than half of the league’s markets – Kansas City included – is inviting disaster. The pitch condition (frozen) was very poor, despite an undersoil heating system that clearly wasn’t up to 20 degree temps. The temperature at kickoff made much of the core of the game that is soccer difficult to play.
Early on Kansas City took the match to Salt Lake with Graham Zusi’s pace down the left side of the pitch clearly giving Beltran and Schuler fits. After about 20 minutes, the RSL defenders had worked out their communication issues and managed to more or less contain the winger thereafter.
While creating chances using a frozen ball on a frozen pitch was difficult, KC did move it around well early on – only to have their finishing let them down. Nagamura misfired from 12yds just 4 minutes in. Defensively KC’s plan seemed to centre around taking down Robbie Findley whenever and wherever they could. Eventual MVP Collin hacked him down in the 22nd, 35th and 69th minute in pretty much identical fashion. Curiously, referee Grajeda found only one (35′) of these to be worthy of yellow card.
In the 29th minute, KC goalkeeper Neilsen misplayed a ball in the air allowing Finley a clear chance at a near open goal. The Salt Lake attacker inexplicably struck the woodwork on the near side.
Game analyst Alejandro Moreno had the most apt comment possible on the game at halftime, saying the play had been “very sloppy, but you have to take your chances”.
No-one had done so, nor did they look likely to.
Just three minutes after the break CJ Sapong broke free in the box and shinned a sitter straight over the bar from 6 yds out. Four minutes later Saborio brought down an inspired Beckerman pass just outside the KC area and hammered it into the lower right corner past Neilsen. Replays showed he had controlled the ball with the uppermost portion of his left arm, but Grajeda rightly allowed the goal to stand.
RSL 1 KC 0.
Salt Lake seemed genuinely buoyed by this success and had perhaps their best spell for the next 15-20 minutes. Findley was fouled by Collin again in the 69th while going past the defender just outside the 18yd box. With Findley arguably having only Neilsen left to beat, there were thoughts a card might be warranted. Referee Grajeda awarded only a free kick. In a match in which creating scoring chances was always going to be difficult given the conditions, Grajeda’s laissez faire approach was perhaps misguided. While no-one wants the match official to “be the show”, the rules do need to be enforced less the game descend into farce.
The moment of the match for Salt Lake perhaps came in the 73rd minute. Findley again made a good run down the left and, with RSL heading in 3 on 3, he pulled up and centred to Morales 20 yards out. The Argentine chipped a nicely weighted ball toward the wide open left side of Neilsen’s net. The keeper, clearly beaten, looked away in disgust. Morales’ placed shot landed just at the base of the post and rebounded across the face of the goal to the keeper. Salt Lake’s chance to put the game away had gone.
Just three minutes later the scale of the missed opportunity would be revealed. Myers drove a ball into the box from the right side. Sapong threw himself clumsily into Schuler pushing him away from the ball, which Borchers then cleared into touch. Sapong’s effort was not unlike two barging tackles that Grajeda had carded players for earlier in the match. This time, he awarded a corner kick to Kansas City rather than a goal kick to Salt Lake.
From tiny acorns do mighty oaks grow. Off Zusi’s fine corner, Aurelien Collin launched himself into a perfect header at the edge of the six yard box, depositing it neatly into the far corner of goal. 1-1. Perhaps the corner should never have been given. Perhaps Collin should already have been sent off for (3) cautionable offenses. Nonetheless, it was a fine goal and arguably the one true moment of offensive quality KC mustered.
RSL nearly snatched the win in the 84th when Saborio hammered a ball from the edge of the six yard box. It was labelled for the bottom right corner and looked certain to beat an out of position Neilsen. Only a fine block from fullback Seth Sinovic preserved the draw.
With both teams very tired, extra time was more or less a non-event. In the 103rd minute Schuler and Sapong clashed again in the box with Sapong going to ground. Grajeda again chose not to intervene. Feilhaber – who had spent much of regulation yelling at his own teammates and diving, kept yapping to the ref about the contact and eventually earned a deserved yellow card. The Schuler/Sapong battle was a keen one to watch and both players are to be commended for playing hard but fair for the full 120 minutes. In the 105th Saborio appeared to have scored on a fine cross from Findley, but the linesman’s flag was up. Replays showed it had been very close, but the official’s call was absolutely correct.
So, for the third time in the last 8 Cup finals, the result would be decided by penalty kicks (6 of the last 9 have gone to AET!). Perhaps the players were just dog tired, perhaps the 20 degree weather made bending the ball impossible. Through 20 penalty kicks, only 13 were converted. Of those 13, perhaps half were attempts of reasonable quality. Ultimately, the unfortunate Lovel Palmer took the final kick. He beat Jimmy Neilsen, but the ball clattered off the underside of the crossbar and bounced out, making Kansas City champions.
In truth, neutral observers would have to credit KC as the better team on the balance of play. But whenever a Cup final ends with central defenders taking penalty kicks, an epic competitive failure has occured. It was a messy, chippy, badly officiated, uninspiring game and an awful advertisement for a league that portrays itself as soccer’s elite level in North America. Outside of Kansas City itself, it’s hard to imagine even one fan was converted to the MLS brand by what was on display.
Surely the showpiece event of the MLS season should not be hampered by conditions like those seen on Saturday?
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