Tonight, I’ll be attending Opening Night for the San Jose Earthquakes. They finished atop the standings during the regular season, which in MLS means they won the Supporters’ Shield (many leagues end their seasons without playoffs … in those leagues, the Quakes would be champs, but they fell in the playoffs to the hated team from Los Angeles). Many fans are hopeful that 2013 turns out even better. Me, I’m worried about their delightful penchant for late-goal heroics in 2012. Their motto was “Goonies Never Say Die”, and it was pretty amazing … just when you thought they couldn’t do it again, they did it again.
On April 28, Steven Lenhart came on as a substitute with 15 minutes to play in a 0-0 match. He scored to put the Quakes ahead, and then, after Philadelphia equalized, Lenhart scored the winner three minutes into extra time.
On May 13, the Quakes trailed from the 4th minute, but got a goal one minute into extra time to pick up a draw.
On May 19, a goal in the 90th minute gave them another draw.
On May 23, against the rivals from Los Angeles, the Quakes trailed 2-0 with 15 minutes to go. They scored twice to equalize, and then Alex Gordon got his second goal of the match, four minutes into extra time, to give the Quakes the win.
It goes on and on. June 20: trailing with 7 minutes to go, they equalized, and then got the winner in the second minute of extra time. June 23: they got the winner with 6 minutes to play. July 28: a goal in the 8th (!) minute of extra time gave them a draw. August 11: they scored the winner in the 3rd minute of extra time. September 19: they scored in the 2nd minute of extra time to pick up a 2-2 draw. September 29: a goal in the 5th minute of extra time gave them a 3-3 draw.
My concern is that the late-game heroics were thrilling, but that the best teams have already put their opponents away before the heroics are necessary. I had a long chat with my nephew Sean, who 1) knows a lot more about soccer than I do, and 2) actually works for the Quakes. He said that the best teams end the season with the most points, and thought I was silly to argue that the Quakes were not the best in 2012. What I meant to say was that they may well have been best, but their late heroics suggested otherwise ... all of those last-minute goals were necessary because they weren't quite as good as their Shield suggested.
Sean noted that the only real metric for success was total points, and it was there that I got hung up on semantics. Success and “best” aren’t necessarily the same thing. The measure of success in the season is total points ... the Quakes had the most points, no one can take that away. But there's a difference between "won the Shield" and "was best team". Goals, late or early, are good things ... but it says something when you need late goals to get the points that win the Shield. It shows great spirit, and a good use of end-game strategy, but I don't think it shows dominance. They could well have been the best team in 2012, and they deserved the Shield, obviously. I'm not saying they sucked.
But when I look at 2013, I assume that they won’t win as many games at the last minute, because I don’t think they won those games solely because they were the better team. They didn’t leave themselves much margin for error in those late heroics, and they are unlikely to beat that margin as often in 2013.
Of course, I hope to be proven wrong.
Meanwhile, MLS moves along, ignored by vast portions of the American sports world. There are areas where MLS (and soccer in general) has made progress in the States. The atmosphere at most matches is great, especially in the Northwest, which rivals the most famous venues in the world. The quality of play has improved. The league is stable. And the Quakes will have a new, soccer-specific stadium next season.
The one area where MLS isn’t successful yet is television. Televised soccer in America is available in mindboggling numbers for anyone who remembers watching one edited German match a week on PBS. There are a few cable channels that do soccer pretty much 24/7, in English and in Spanish. The great teams are on our TVs every week. But MLS TV ratings are low. We’ve gotten to the point where an American sports fan will watch a soccer match on television. But when they do, it’s likely to be Manchester United vs. Chelsea, not San Jose vs. Los Angeles. I don’t know the answer to this problem, and I’m not sure it needs to be addressed, although it’s essential if MLS wants to extend its cultural impact. I know this: when I show up at Buck Shaw Stadium tonight, I’ll be surrounded by 10,000 soccer fans who would rather watch the Quakes than watch Barcelona. (And if 10,000 seems like a small number, it is, but it’s also a sellout crowd in the small temporary stadium they’re using until the new stadium is finished.)