With the announcement earlier today that MLS will hold the final of the 2010 MLS Cup Playoffs at a neutral site, it seems a good time to revisit the controversy of whether this is good for the league, the teams, and their fans. Since the league began in 1996, the Final has always been played at a stadium determined before the playoffs began. Twice in the league’s 14 year history did a participating team play the final in their home stadium — DC United defeated Colorado 2-1 at RFK Stadium in 1997 and New England lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 at Gillette Stadium in 2002.
During the recent MLS Cup Final weekend in Seattle, Commissioner Don Garber was asked whether the league would switch to the final game being hosted by the team with the best playoff seeding — shouldn’t the higher seed earn some sort of advantage over their lesser opponent? The Commissioner replied that such a proposal was under consideration, but that no decision had been made for next season and beyond.
We got our answer today with MLS’s announcement that the Cup Final format would remain the same for 2010. In a statement from Garber, he explained the rational behind the decision. “We believe this format will provide an exciting environment for our fans while also allowing the necessary planning time for our key constituents. We will continue to assess the possibility of playing MLS Cup at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team in the future.”
Much of the debate in Seattle on the location of future finals was prior to the actual game taking place — a penalty-kick shootout victory by the eighth seeded Real Salt Lake over the second seeded Los Angeles Galaxy. The arguments in favor of a change in policy basically took on two themes. First, the better seeded finalist deserved an advantage over their lower seeded opponent due to their superior regular season form. Second, fans and supporters of the best team in the Cup Final should be rewarded with hosting the game close to home.
Both points are valid, but can be explained away by the current structure of the MLS Playoffs. The better seeds entering the playoffs get to host the conference championship games, giving their teams the home-field advantage they earn through success in the regular season. Their path to the Final is intended to be the most straightforward in this system. For the fans of the higher seeds, they get the chance to see their team at home in those conference championships.
Those that want to focus on the money side of the equation will point out that the two highest attendances for MLS Cup Final games were in 1997 and 2002 — both “home” games for participating clubs DC United and the New England Revolution. Mere circumstances lead to their hosting the championship, but that didn’t hurt the financial bottom-line for these two events. An MLS Cup record 61,316 attended the game in 2002, while RFK hosted 57,431 in 1997. Having a participating team host the Final sure seems to make financial sense now, doesn’t it?
Sure, if the hosting team can boast a quality stadium with a large attendance capacity, I’m sure MLS would love to have that occurrence every season. What happens if Kansas City (Community America Ballpark capacity = 10,385) or San Jose (Buck Shaw Stadium capacity = 10,300) finish with the highest seed in the playoffs — would the league allow their showcase game to be played in small, temporary stadiums? Nearby locations could be substituted, but that doesn’t seem to fit the rational for having them host the final in the first place.
For sports where the champion is determined by a series of games — baseball, basketball, hockey — it makes sense to let the better seeded team host more games. However, when the championship is settled in a winner-take-all single game format, a neutral-site location makes the most sense. Neither team is given a huge advantage over the other. This works for other soccer tournaments — FA Cup, UEFA Champions League — and the biggest sports final in the United States — The NFL’s Super Bowl. The distractions of a home-crowd disappear and the best team on the night emerges as champion. The best supporters for each club will continue to make the trek to see their team, providing an exciting environment for all in attendance.
As MLS tries to grow their Cup Final beyond just a game to “event” status, continuing to choose a neutral-site location is paramount. Weekend activities leading up the Final, which often require lengthy planning periods, create a better overall experience for the teams and their fans. The local supporters can also get involved, and perhaps develop their own enthusiasm for their local team’s future prospects. Seattle proved in 2009 that a host city can embrace the Final even without their team participating. The challenge is for future host cities to do the same.