From the MLS to the national teams to Americans abroad
North America's frequently bizarre top flight is oscillating its way towards its conclusion. Zac Lee Rigg shakes his head gently
MLS is crazy. Take, for instance, the two-legged New York Red Bulls - San Jose Earthquakes play-off which San Jose won on Thursday.
Last year, these two sides were bottom of the league. Literally - they finished with the fewest and second-fewest regular season points. Twelve months on, they both qualified for the play-offs, with New York boasting the best record in the Eastern Conference.
For all its pitfalls, MLS has achieved its stated goal of parity with wild success. In the matter of a four-month off-season. a team can transform its fortunes from league whipping boys into genuine contenders.
New York needed just 12 matches this season to match its 21-point total from 2009. Then, midway through 2010, the Red Bulls became one of the elite MLS clubs by unveiling the state-of-the-art Red Bull Arena and becoming the first club to sign three Designated Players.
Designated Players can earn more than the league maximum of $450,000 per annum, with the excess picked up the club owners (instead of the centralised league contracts) and not counted toward the stringent salary cap. The rule was essentially created to bring David Beckham Stateside, and New York used it to lure Barcelona duo Thierry Henry and Rafael Marquez this summer, adding them to former Aston Villa hitman Juan Pablo Angel on the roster.
So last season's worst team entered the tie with San Jose as heavy favorites – and a big-name draw for a sport frequently ignored in the U.S.
The convolution of rules which pitted New York against San Jose is tangled enough to cause headaches. Split like many US sports into two conferences, East and West, MLS awards the top two teams in each play-off berths. So far, so sensible.
But the other four play-off places - wild-card slots - are given to the next four best regular season records. So San Jose, the sixth best team in the West, qualified by bettering the point total of the third best team in the East – the Kansas City Wizards.
Flopped over to the 'Eastern Conference' for the sake of the play-offs, San Jose took on New York while the fifth team in the West, the Colorado Rapids, paired off with the Columbus Crew. And now Colorado and San Jose will vie for the Eastern Conference title, an honor won by Real Salt Lake last year.
To simplify, in case your US geography isn't all that great: a bunch of teams on the left half of the country are fighting for the title of the best team from the right-hand side. Crazy, right?
But then, MLS is crazy. Take, for instance, San Jose. This team had no business qualifying for the play-offs. With minor off-season turnover and no coaching changes, an increase in fortunes seemed unlikely. But the side rode a miraculous goalscoring run by Chris Wondolowski into the post-season.
Wondolowski is a 27-year-old striker who had never scored more than two goals in any given season. This year he hit 18 to lead the league. This year he hit nine game-winning goals to lead the league. This year, he ended the season by scoring every one of San Jose's last 10 goals to set a league record.
Without Wondo's burst out of nowhere to feature prominently on the US national team radar, San Jose wouldn't have been close to play-off qualification.
Even with him, San Jose never should have beaten New York. Away in California, the Red Bulls stampeded over the hosts, outworking and outclassing the pretenders. Even at only 1-0, the tie looked over, headed back to New York for the second leg.
Instead, an oddball game featured three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half as San Jose - improbably, insanely - qualified for the Eastern Conference final.
MLS is crazy. Take, for instance, Bobby Convey. Here's a guy who has scored 10 goals in seven MLS seasons. Four out of his five seasons in England with Reading ended with a big ol' goose egg in the goals-scored column.
Here's a guy who San Jose didn't protect in the 2010 Expansion Draft, essentially meaning his hometown club, the newly-created Philadelphia Union, could have selected him for free.
Here's a guy who is blind in one eye.
Here's a guy who was overlooked by his hometown club earlier in the season because of several years of poor form and inflated wages.
Here's a guy who couldn't lock down a left midfield starting position, frequently covering left-back despite his team-high 10 assists this season and generally solid attacking displays.
Here's a guy who scored two goals against New York and set up the other in a 3-1 win to lead his team to the next round of the playoffs.
Zac Lee Rigg writes about the insanities of MLS for Goal.com and MLSsoccer.com and frequently turns to ibuprofen to deal with it.
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