High 5 12/2

The High Five: Fitting venue for 20th MLS Cup, a hole in the referee plan, marginalized fullbacks and more

1. Loving Columbus’ stadium as MLS host

Major League Soccer’s final will be in Columbus this Sunday. Thing is, as glamour destinations go, Ohio’s capital city probably doesn’t top many lists.

In some alternate reality, maybe New York would host. And doesn’t that reek of “big time” and big doings? Not to mention the added PR pop of playing a final in the nation’s largest media market.

Welp, New York didn’t get there.

Or how about an MLS Cup just outside Dallas? The weather would likely be dandy – yes, it was yucky for Sunday’s Western Conference final but it was absolutely ideal for MLS Cups held there in 2005 and 2006 – and Dallas carries a certain cachet as an international city.

Welp, Dallas didn’t get there.

So the final is in Ohio. And while there would be absolutely nothing wrong with a final in Dallas or New York (the other two potential sites going into last weekend’s conference finals), let me say this for the record:

I love that Major League Soccer’s 20th final will be contested inside MAPFRE Stadium, which was known as Crew Stadium as it opened in 1999. There is a real poetry about it. There is a real “closing for circles” at work as the league’s landmark 20th final lands in Columbus.

See, this was the first stadium built expressly for MLS. It was the genesis of Major League Soccer’s ongoing and wildly successful facility initiative; nothing has been more essential in driving league growth. Unless you know the real history of professional soccer in this country, you cannot understand what kind of leap of faith this (admittedly Spartan) little ground in Columbus really was. As construction began in 1998, the certainty of Major League Soccer’s ongoing viability was, well, let’s go with “somewhat limited.” Even to this day, most people don’t understand how close MLS was to closing its doors before the 2002 season.

So for Lamar Hunt to spend $30 million on a stadium at the time was a tremendous, historic leap of faith. That’s why it is wonderful that a benchmark final will be played in the original house the Lamar built.

No, it’s not the fanciest of MLS grounds. The place is unadorned by one of those swell roofs. It’s on the sparse side in terms of money-making luxury boxes and supporters clubs and all the other trappings of the modern MLS grounds. It’s the meat and potatoes of American soccer grounds.

But it does have history – and that counts for a lot. It’s got almost 20 years of history now, including all those wonderful “Dos a ceros.” Having Major League Soccer’s 20th final inside Mapfre Stadium almost seems destined in that way.

2. No fullbacks? No problem. The Best XI was just fine

It didn’t take long after Major League Soccer announced this year’s Best XI  Sunday for some low-level grumbling to ensue among the Fourth Estate. Plenty of the complaints boiled down to “What? No fullbacks? Why can’t an MLS fullback get any love?”

But was this really any surprise at all? Because as surprises go, this ranks up there with “colder weather will be moving in sometime around November.”

I have zero problem with the team announced, not with the players named or with the positional construct, the one that seems to marginalize outside backs. It reflects the reality of MLS.

Best XI teams are never going to represent a “true” team that fits some type of truly functional alignment, which seems to be some people’s notion of what all-star or all-league teams need to be. In fact, the league’s Best XI for 2015,  voted as always by media, players and club representatives, looks very similar to the ballot I turned in. And, yes, my ballot had just three defenders.

Here’s the deal: In Major League Soccer, the best defenders are center backs. It’s just part of the economic landscape in MLS; clubs generally don’t allocate much cash for fullbacks. (It’s actually this way in most leagues; only the big brand, truly affluent clubs can typically open the wallet wide for a right and left back.)

Speaking frankly, Best XI teams would look a little silly if they didn’t get the highest possible number of, you know, “best” players. Sure, we could have had a Chris Tierney (New England), an Alvas Powell (Portland) or a Harrison Afful (Columbus) on the Best XI side; that certainly wouldn’t be appalling. But it would come at the expense of a darned good player. As it is, Sacha Kljestan couldn’t make the Best XI, and he was outstanding all year running the Red Bulls midfield.

Imagine having to leave Robbie Keane or Fabian Castillo or even the exceptional and still-rising Ethan Finlay off the team to get one of those fullbacks on the team. Again, Tierney, Powell, Afful and others (DaMarcus Beasley still has something to say about all this) had great seasons. But if we measure their impact, the likes of Keane, Castillo and Finlay simply had more of it.

By the way, I’m fairly certain that after the three Best XI center backs, the next three, four or perhaps even five defenders in the balloting were … you guessed it, more center backs.

Spending in MLS and, again, around the world, usually gets prioritized something like this: strikers, attacking midfielders, center backs, wide and holding midfielders, goalkeepers and then outside backs. Wherever the salary cap and player acquisition devices go in the future, that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Nor will the Best XI voting, generally.

3. Why the best MLS ref never got a playoff game

Best referee in MLS over the last two years? For me it’s not even close; it’s Alan Kelly.

I’m clearly not the only one who feels that way, at least not for 2015. Kelly was recently named MLS Referee of the Year. His overall match management is simply at another level compared to some of his peers.

So I kept waiting to see Kelly in an MLS playoff match. Just. Kept. Waiting.

But the assignments would be announced and … no Kelly. Well, here’s why:

Turns out that the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that playoff referees must have two years of experience working regular season MLS matches. Which would generally make sense – but not always.

Kelly came into MLS last year (in 2014) already with high-level experience in Europe, including a small sample of UEFA Champions League matches. So MLS petitioned the players union to waive the rule for Kelly – but no dice.

So no Kelly. And that’s why the best MLS referee – easily so, in my opinion – was excluded from Major League Soccer’s most important, most meaningful matches.

4. Higher seed advantage disappears later in the playoffs

You wonder if we’ll start to have a debate – or at least start to think about having a debate – about tweaking one part of the current MLS playoff format.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has been steadfast on playoffs as an MLS staple; American sports are all about playoffs, he always says, and that’s just the way it’s going to be. So much of the formatting effort becomes an exercise in maximizing regular season relevance, finding ways to best reward the higher seeds.

The current format seems to work in the early rounds and the conference semifinals; the records reflect it. Since the league began that round of early, single elimination matches in 2011, the higher seed (the home team) is 9-3. In those rounds, the matches are all jammed into such a tight window that home field advantage and the benefit of rest can become significant factors. So, higher seeds have typically benefitted, which means “mission accomplished.”

But in the conference finals, where the games aren’t coming as fast and furious, the body of evidence is growing that lower seeds have an edge. Since the current format was adopted in 2012, the lower seed is 6-2 in those conference final home-and-away series.

The lower seed currently gets the initial home game. In both cases this year that first hosts (Columbus and Portland) seized command of the series. Both took two-goal leads, which allowed them to play comfortably in the return leg.

There was a lot of tactical analysis and match breakdown after Sunday’s matches, most of it based on Portland and Columbus getting things right, and about Dallas and New York not doing enough to dislodge the opposition. And none of it was necessarily wrong; in fact, most that I heard was spot on.

But this has to be added to the conversation: once a team seizes control of the series, all they have to do is “hold serve.” In other words, it’s easier to “nail it” on the game plan.

All of that is fair enough; that’s part of the deal. The point is this: you wonder if a movement may gain steam to allow the higher seed to select whether they get the home leg first. It might be an idea worth considering.

5. The Little Five

5a. One understated benefit of Major League Soccer’s lengthy season – early March first kick to early December MLS Cup – is that all off-season news happens within a fairly compact time frame. An off-season that lasts roughly six weeks may seem about right around the world, but it’s a rare beast in the American sports landscape. So it seems a bit odd to us – but it is really great, isn’t it?

5b. Of course, the bigger benefit of a long MLS season is, well, a longer MLS season to enjoy the games! Major League Soccer’s player combine begins Jan. 7, in just a little more than a month. Preseason camps open Jan. 22. Matches will begin in early March.

5c. Seriously, there has got to be a “lifetime achievement award” thing happening at some point for Oscar Pareja. Every year, going back to his days in Colorado, Pareja works wonders with a young group of players. And every year he gets close on Coach of the Year, but a better story – a compelling tale of worst-to-first, or a reclamation effort or that crazy thing that happened in New York this year – wins out as the better narrative. Pareja finished second this year to New York’s Jesse Marsch.

5d. It really is a super-huge week for the Higuain family. Over here, of course, Federico Higuain will play for MLS Cup this week. Meanwhile, “over there,” Gonzalo Higuain and his club are doing big things. Gonzalo, the younger brother by four years, and Napoli are leading Italy’s Serie A for the first time since … wait for it … 1990! Gonzalo’s razor sharp form is a big reason why Napoli, and not one of the big spending traditional powers, is in charge for the time being.

5e. Not hard to see where the two conference finals losers need to train their scouting sights for the off-season. Dallas needs a striker. David Texeira is a solid MLS forward, but not anything close to an elite one. If Pareja’s team wants to climb the next rung, they’ll need a solid 15-goal scorer. New York needs another center back, someone to partner with (and even better, to tutor) Matt Miazga, who has a bright future but certainly isn’t a finished product.