M.L.S. Cup and the Joy of the Open Field

For the neutral, there is almost no choice to make. The plotline of this weekend’s M.L.S. Cup final is so simple and familiar that the marketing spiel, presumably, writes itself. On one side, there stands Goliath, the empire, the rich and the glamorous and the powerful. On the other, lies David, the plucky rebels, the homespun and the threadbare and the unassuming.

It is rare, in these situations, for anyone not diverted by a vested interest and in possession of something approaching a functioning soul not to know, on some primal, instinctive level that the correct course of action is to plump for the plucky rebels, every time.

The Philadelphia Union fulfill that role almost too perfectly, an underdog straight from central casting. This is a club, after all, that runs on one of the lowest operating budgets in the league but has managed, over three seasons, to pick up the Supporters’ Shield — given to the team with the best regular-season record — miss out on a conference title thanks, in part, to an outbreak of Covid, and then come back to make its first final.

More significantly, the Union are a team without obvious, standout stars, one that has resisted the lure of easy fixes and fading glamour. It has favored, instead, a smart, data-driven approach to recruitment underpinned by a thriving youth academy. Its story stands as proof that anyone can win, if only they have enough patience, and conviction, and imagination. The Union are as close to the Mighty Ducks as possible without employing actual children.

Its opponent, Los Angeles F.C., is not far-off its diametrical opposite. L.A.F.C.’s budget is twice the size of Philadelphia’s. It was earmarked as a heavy favorite to win M.L.S. Cup even before it added Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale to its ranks in June.

It boasts not only Carlos Vela, one of the league’s standout players for the past five years, but also Cristian Arango, one of its finest forwards; Maxime Crepeau, one of its most experienced goalkeepers; and a clutch of Ecuadorean internationals. L.A.F.C. may be in its first M.L.S. Cup final — and its coach, Steve Cherundolo, may be a rookie — but in this context, it makes for a convincing hegemon.

The contrast between the two is so stark, in fact, that it is tempting to read into their meeting on Saturday some deeper meaning, to pitch their encounter as a confrontation between competing visions of what M.L.S. is, or what it should be.

Philadelphia and L.A.F.C. are, after all, the two best teams in the league this season, and it is the first time in almost two decades that the dominant forces from each conference have made the final. More significant than their geography, though, is that each seems to represent a particular cultural caucus, too.

A Union victory could be interpreted as an indication that M.L.S.’s future lies in fostering young, hungry teams, ones that are not stocked with household names but are more cogent, more compelling for it. An L.A.F.C. triumph would seem to herald a return to a previous era of the league, during which ambitious teams in rich markets could guarantee success (or at least a bit of attention) simply by signing a couple of fading European stars.

The problem, of course, is that not everything has a deeper meaning. In the past five years, five different teams have won the M.L.S. Cup, from Toronto to Atlanta, Seattle to Columbus and, last season, New York City F.C. The Union or L.A.F.C., debutants both, will make it six in six.

It is not easy to identify a pattern in those victories. Yes, for a while, it was possible to claim with some authority that North American soccer’s power base had shifted north: Between 2015 and 2021, at least one of Toronto, Seattle and the Portland Timbers were present for seven straight M.L.S. Cup finals, winning four of them.

But the routes that they took were starkly different. Toronto’s 2017 victory, built on Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, bore little resemblance to Seattle’s triumph a couple of years later, inspired by Nicolás Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz, much less the success of New York City F.C. last year. Atlanta won in 2018 thanks to a deliberate policy of investing heavily in young Latin American talent. Columbus constructed its 2020 championship team on the fly.

Regardless of which team makes that final step this weekend, they will do little to bring any clarity to the broader picture. L.A.F.C. could, in certain lights, be cast as an updated version of Toronto. Columbus, one could argue, had the same underdog quality as Philadelphia. The parallels, though, are imperfect and just a little forced.

That is something to be celebrated. It is far less important to know that one approach, one style, one system does work than it is to know that any of them — executed well, implemented effectively, introduced judiciously — can work.

What this edition of the M.L.S. Cup, like most of the previous editions, proves is that there is not one single method that teams must adopt in order to succeed, but that there are many routes to triumph. The outcome of a single game, one that can rest on a slip or a moment of wonder, does not change that. The rebels have a chance, and so does the empire.

In the end, and by a single goal, Rangers secured their own little sliver of history. Plenty of teams have departed the Champions League group stage with a record of six games played and six games lost. Thanks to an 89th-minute goal from Ajax’s Francisco Conceição on Tuesday, though, Rangers can now say that nobody has ever done it quite as spectacularly as they did.

The bar had been set more than a decade ago by a Dinamo Zagreb team featuring Mateo Kovacic, Domagoj Vida, Sime Vrsaljko and Milan Badelj — all of whom, as it happens, would be on the Croatian squad for the 2018 World Cup final. That side had been drawn into a group with Real Madrid, Ajax and Lyon. It had scored three goals, and conceded 22.

Going into the final round of group games this season, both Rangers and the Czech champion, Viktoria Plzen, had a chance of bettering — which is almost definitely not the right term — that record. If Rangers lost by two goals, or Plzen by three, either one could end Dinamo’s ignominy.

Plzen stirred itself sufficiently to avoid that particular stigma, losing, 4-2, to Barcelona and ending its campaign with the dubious solace of only equaling Dinamo’s low-water mark. That should have been Rangers’ fate, too. In the 89th minute at Ibrox, Ajax was ahead by a single goal. Humiliation had been averted. The Scottish team only had to play out the clock. It was at that point that Conceição, a late substitute, found himself charging into the penalty area. His goal meant Rangers ended the group phase with a goal difference of -20.

If there is a solace to Rangers — beyond the millions of dollars of prize money it will have earned just by showing up — it is that it will most likely not bear the stigma for quite as long as Dinamo. The same evening, Bayern Munich beat Inter Milan. The German champion has now won all six games in the group phase in three of the last four years. It has not lost a group game since September 2017.

These two statistical quirks are related. The strength of the Champions League’s elite, those teams that are ever-present in the competition, is inversely proportional to the hope of those sides, based outside Europe’s major leagues, who might appear only every few years. It is a tournament, as Elon Musk might put it, of “lords and peasants,” of superpowers and makeweights. There is only one edition left of the traditional group phase before the Champions League enters its new era. That may yet be long enough for someone else to claim Rangers’ unwanted crown.

The future of Brazilian soccer appears to be in its past. Last weekend, on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast, Flamengo beat Athletico Paranaense by a single goal — scored, in first-half stoppage time, by Gabriel Barbosa — to lift a second Copa Libertadores in four years. With its victory, Flamengo secured a fourth-straight Brazilian victory in the world’s second-most glamorous club competition.

Even that, though, does not quite illustrate the scale of Brazil’s dominance of the tournament. The past three finals have all been contested by Brazilian teams. This year, as was the case in 2021, only one team from outside Brazil made the semifinals, a consequence of the vast economic disparity between that country’s elite teams and everyone else.

What Flamengo’s victory illustrated more specifically, though, was how that wealth is being invested. At 26, Barbosa — commonly known as Gabigol — was one of the younger players on the field in Guayaquil. The defense was marshaled by David Luiz. He had Filipe Luís at left back and Thiago Maia in midfield. Arturo Vidal came off the bench, where he had been sitting with Erick Pulgar, Diego Alves, Everton and Diego.

These are all, of course, players who have returned from Europe, either after long and distinguished careers there (David Luiz, Filipe Luís, Vidal, Alves) or after brief, somewhat unsatisfying stays (Maia, Everton, Diego). This is the new model of Brazilian soccer: not teams full of young hopefuls, ready for the leap to Europe, but of stars returning home for a valedictory tour.

Thanks to Meredith Rose for a world-class — and, sincerely, educational — piece of what politeness determines we should not refer to as pedantry. Last week’s newsletter mentioned, you will absolutely not remember, that Aleksandar Mitrovic lay both “prone” and “on his back.” That, it turns out, is impossible. “If he is prone, he must be facing downward,” Meredith points out. “If he’s on his back, he’s supine.” A failing even my favorite linguistic arbiter did not notice. I stand corrected. On my feet.

“Why do professional soccer players tolerate the exhausting playing schedule that puts their health at significant risk?” asks Richard Brown. “Owners and leagues seem to have a voice in deciding priorities and goals, but the players seem silent.”

There are organizations, mostly the global players’ union FIFPRO, that have been outspoken on this subject, Richard, but I would agree that the players — for all their wealth and fame — have struggled to speak with a collective voice. It’s noteworthy, too, that anyone who does bring it up tends to be accused of making excuses for poor performances.

Quite why that is, I suspect, may be rooted in history: There is no tradition of, for example, collective-bargaining agreements (or their equivalent) in European soccer. I suspect the open nature of the market mitigates against it, though that is just a theory.

And great work from Iain Dunlop, drawing together two recent features of the newsletter: the dearth of mud in the modern game and the gradual demise of the long goal kick.

“I’d say one of the main reasons for this ploy was to bypass 50 yards of muddy morass that masqueraded as a field during the winter months,” he wrote, though I have translated some of his terms into American. “If my fading memory serves, I do seem to remember many discussions around this time about why the ‘continental game’ was technically superior to ours. The conclusion inevitably reached was that better weather and pitches led to superior skills in both playing and management.”

This is a pet subject of mine: the role played by local climates in determining how soccer is (traditionally) played around the world. The long-ball game, without question, took root in northern Europe because it rains a lot. The tempo is generally slower in Spain and Italy, say, because it is substantially hotter there. This feels like an obvious truth that, for some reason, we choose to ignore.

If you would like to hear that theory expounded in about 1,500 words, get in touch at [email protected], or on Twitter. And remember: This newsletter will go on hiatus during the World Cup (next week’s, I think, will be the last regular service for a while), but you will receive a daily — that’s right! Daily! By me! Every day! — missive, instead, to keep you up-to-date with events in Qatar.

Have a great weekend,