The Throw-In: The MLS Cup playoff chase? That's so cliché
If the summer-transfer window is the Silly Season, the fall home stretch is the Cliché Season. As the MLS Cup playoffs approach, this is the time of year when the platitudes start rolling off the tongues of players and coaches around the league like they’re going out of style.
You know the ones I’m talking about.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time.”
“It’s a must-win game.”
“We’re not worried about what other teams do.”
“We need to give 110 percent.”
Is this just the athlete’s way of deflecting the same old questions while they try to concentrate on the task at hand? Or is it actually how they’re approaching the final few weeks of the regular season?
Probably a little of both. And in the grand scheme of things, Bull Durham writer and director Ron Shelton deserves major royalties every time a sports figure spouts one of these chestnuts.
One of these clichés in particular has always entertained me to no end: “We control our own destiny.”
In the past week, Chivas USA head coach Robin Fraser has used it. So has Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak. And LA Galaxy defender A.J. DeLaGarza. And Houston Dynamo forward Will Bruin. And so on, and so on.
In a tight playoff race, you get that one everywhere. For the teams with the points, or the games in hand – the ones sitting pretty – it’s their way of saying, “If we don’t blow it, we’re in good shape.”
But “in control” of one’s destiny? That just isn’t possible. It defies the very definition of the word destiny.
Destiny is “a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency,” according to Noah Webster.
In other words, destiny is something that cannot be changed, altered or presided over. There is no controlling one’s own destiny.
“I’ve said that before and stopped myself and analyzed it,” Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall told MLSsoccer.com by phone last week, “and you’re right – it’s completely ridiculous.”
And yet everyone’s saying it. In the spirit of classic clichés, it is what it is.
But as Cliché Season approaches its fever pitch, this silly saying is actually the one that holds the most water out of all of them: Worry about what your own team is doing. Take care of your own business, keep your head down and keep grabbing the points when you can. Because if you don’t, you’ll quickly find out that the postseason is not your destiny.
The Galaxy know this. They understand that a second straight Supporters’ Shield is theirs to lose. They can clinch it with a win, yet they missed their chance on Tuesday in New York and still must maintain focus.
The Red Bulls know this. Despite their near-meltdown the second half of this season, they understand their recent results have put them back into the thick of the race. With two games left, they can guarantee their own survival – and even climb back into a top-three finish.
Sporting Kansas City know this. They can complete their remarkable worst-to-first turnaround by getting the points they need in their last two games, and actually end the regular season atop the Eastern Conference.
But with 10 teams still in contention for seven remaining postseason spots, worrying only about yourself doesn’t always work. With their survival on the line, players can’t help but scoreboard-watch. It’s that insecurity that – ideally – keeps them hungry as the regular season comes to an end.
When we spoke with Hall, he was hours from doing a double-viewing of last Wednesday’s Sporting KC-Columbus and Real Salt Lake-Chicago games, two results which directly impacted the Dynamo’s standing in the precarious Eastern Conference table. To expect him to tune all that out is a myth.
“If I were a robot, I could ignore it,” the Houston netminder said. “But I’m not. And I care a lot. I’m going to be paying attention.”
Perhaps no team has experienced the up and downs of this season like Houston. The Dynamo have been in and out of first place in the East during the past 30 days no less than three times. Every match day, it seems, a different Eastern team has assumed the pole position in the conference, only to lose it the next day thanks to inconsistent results.
And nearly every Eastern frontrunner has had games in hand on the Dynamo. But despite that inconsistent play, Houston can guarantee their return to the MLS Cup playoffs with wins in their last two games: at Portland (fighting for their own survival) and vs. the Galaxy (who may already have clinched the Shield by then).
But that’s still two games in which the ball could bounce in any direction. For all 10 teams still alive, these final weeks of the season are a matter of life and death. There’s no such thing as destiny here – if they want to survive, they’ve got to take care of business.
“Towards the end of the season, it seems like anything can happen,” Hall said. “That makes it important that we get back to that other cliché, and take it one game at a time.”
Somewhere, Crash Davis is smiling.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.