View from the Cheap Seats: East-West, West-East
and more effective. It's a style thing, like in other leagues. Specifically like in the NBA and NHL. In those leagues, the different styles between the conferences mirrors the deep-down spirit of the teams' hometowns. In the East, generally, teams play a slower, plodding game, a bump-and-grind style that reflects the grimy industrial nature of the eastern cities like Boston and Philadelphia. In the West, it's a more free-flowing game, like that played by the NBA's Sacramento Kings and the NHL's Detroit Red Wings (the best sports team ever!). Players are encouraged to express themselves, get out into the spaces and run like wild horses streaking the plains or surfers shooting the curl. Obviously, in those leagues, the western style has dominated recently.
(Wow, sociology and Tupac all in one measly soccer column. Think I have too much time on my hands?)
In MLS, the same is true. Think about San Jose championship teams of 2001 and 2003. Those Quakes got out and ran, letting Landon Donovan do that thing he does. Or the 2002 Galaxy, with El Pescadito trashing around the net flanked by Ezra, Cobi, Sasha and whatever other one-name players were on that team. These were squads with flair, with panache, with that eye-popping je ne sais quoi that Pele deemed "beautiful." Sure, they had a couple of old-school donkeys (e.g. Alexi, Agoos) who kept things tight in back, but for the most part these were teams that cared more about "having some joy," as Thomas Rongen used to say, than playing negative soccer.
It's one of the pleasures of a young, still-unsophisticated league like MLS that joyful soccer wins out over cynical soccer.
Whether that holds true or not this year remains to be seen. I tend to think this year, with its overwhelming parity (read: blandness), is a watershed season. This year the teams have displayed more Italianate sophistication. A little catenaccio, if you will. Really, the only team still letting the horses run is D.C. United, which makes sense considering D.C. coach Peter Nowak was such a joyful player. But they just don't have enough studs to pull it off.
The league's top two teams, Columbus and Kansas City, play a highly strategic game. I'm not going to say cynical, because I think their styles display a counterintuitive beauty, a la Claire Danes -- something is not quite right but it's beautiful nevertheless. Both the Crew and Wiz sit back, defend, wait for an opportunity, and finish half-chances. Thank you for coming. Drive safely. Don't forget to tip your bartenders. It's joyful for spurts and highly effective. My gut tells me these two teams will meet in MLS Cup, with K.C. coming out on top in a game of strategic beauty.
And this too is one of the pleasures of a young, still-unsophisticated league: We on the sidelines get to watch it change and mature right before our eyes. You see, Mr. Arena, we are educating ourselves.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.