The Curious Optimism of the MLS Playoffs

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“The credit belongs not to the man in the arena, but to those who make excuses for why they aren’t in the arena because, if they were, they would have been better.” –Teddy Roosevelt (we’re pretty sure)

Whether your team was in or out, OTF’s Nick Fox ponders the importance of the MLS Playoffs…

The playoff system in Major League Soccer exists for a number of reasons. There are practical reasons, such as the increased revenue that comes from more games. There are situational reasons, such as attempting to grow the game among an audience of Americans accustomed to season-long competitions that culminate in knockout tournaments.

But there is another reason, perhaps more important than these, why the playoffs are important to fans of Major League Soccer: They serve as a crucial reminder that if your team, whichever it is, made the playoffs, it could have beaten the crap out of all the teams that actually made it.

On the surface, that sounds like poor sportsmanship — just because your team didn’t make the playoffs means you get to criticize those still in the arena. But I assure you, it is much more than that. It is also arrogance, petulance, and a complete inability to face reality. And I, for one, am sort of fine with that.

Now, if your team did make the postseason, I’m not saying it didn’t deserve to be there. I’m just saying my team deserved to be there more. And I’m not saying you are wrong for thinking your team deserves to be there more than my team. I’m saying you are incorrect and misguided, because it’s more polite.

Let’s look at Montreal. No, let’s stare at Montreal. We Fire fans were shredded when a team that spent the last six weeks of the season in complete free fall pipped our boys for the final playoff spot on a goals-for tiebreaker. We felt our Men in Red deserved that fifth and final spot in the East.

So do you think we were disappointed by Montreal’s performance in their play-in game against Houston? On the contrary, we felt entirely vindicated. Between Marco Di Vaio’s throat grabs and Andres Romero’s ball kicks, we had a swell time watching that game. Montreal showed themselves to be a classless gang of thugs who held none of the moral fiber of the players on our team, one of whom will likely be canonized by the end of the year.

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To Di Vaio’s credit, he was actually onside when he got the red card. (photo: AP/Bob Levey)

But it’s not just about Montreal or Marco Di Vaio’s roving hands. No matter who the team is, true homers can always find a reason why their team is better than those bums on screen (and bums they are!). Whether it’s seeing New York fade away against a team that should have been gassed, watching New England playing over the thirty-yard line of a hastily marked gridiron field (my high school team used to do that, too), or watching Kansas City employ a game plan known as “multiple felonious assaults,” there’s a strange liberation that comes from watching the playoffs from the outside and knowing, in your gut, what would have happened if only. If only…

Of course, there’s a more obvious optimism that comes from the playoff structure. The postseason promises the kind of fresh start we crave in American life. Even if your team barely limps in, it has just as much of a chance as the other nine to win the big prize. And yes, Houston, this is about you, for you are the representative for all of those teams who didn’t make it this far.

Houston, for the third straight year, is proving the value of getting hot at the right time. They are the darlings of the disheveled, the hope for all shoulda-beens. Their dismantling of Montreal and gutty takedown of New York gives hope to the rest of us. Sure, my team might not have had all the right pieces to put together the season-long run of success New York had, but I don’t need that. A solid finish and a bit of moxie and they certainly could have been Houston, stepping happily on the faces of more successful teams on their way to everlasting glory.

Optimism will burn brightly over this coming international break. For Sporting, there is the certainty they will not leave their friendly confines again, and that they are a single victory from playing for the Cup before the Kansas City faithful. For Houston, who survived a run of four playoff games in ten days, there is the relief that, following a two-week break to rest their exhausted legs, they will have no hole to dig their way out of in the second leg of their tie. For Real Salt Lake, there is a two-goal edge over a team that failed to beat them this year. And for Portland, there is the last-second goal Sunday night that kept them within striking distance for their return to Jeld-Wen Field, and perhaps the best home field advantage in the league.

And for the rest of us, there is the off-season, already begun, where our teams make the moves to pull in the one or two remaining pieces that will prove, once and for all, what we have always known: Our team is better than your team.

Even if your team is Houston.

OTF’s Nick Fox grew up in Sarasota, Florida and has never fully recovered. A former tour guide in both Chicago and New Orleans, Nick’s also worked as a mule driver, a sailor, and a travelling poet. He’s currently working on a novel about gold miners and waiting for the White Sox to win another World Series. Follow Nick @OlympicMule

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