New York beat Real Salt Lake on Saturday in the Western Conference final and will play in the MLS Cup final against Columbus Crew.
How many people could have seen that coming just a couple of weeks ago?
The Red Bulls are making a miraculous run to their first-ever MLS Cup title and while I criticized the Red Bulls' participation in the playoffs, I think I'm changing my mind. I welcome the Red Bulls' run to the cup and hope they continue to make noise. If they do win MLS Cup, we will have two non-deserving playoff teams win the title in a span of four years. Along with the 2005 LA Galaxy, who had the ninth best regular season record that year, the Red Bulls are helping expose the sham of a playoff system MLS has in place.
This reminds me of 2005 quite a bit actually. Perhaps the only difference was the Galaxy won their first playoff game and held the top-seeded 'Quakes on the return leg. I remember talking to Kevin Hartman, then the Galaxy's goalkeeper, and he was not at all masking his thoughts about the postseason, which he referred to then as a "four-week tournament."
Here's what he told me in the tunnel outside the Galaxy locker room almost four years ago to the day.
"What a great team they (San Jose) were. As far as I'm concerned, they deserve some sort of trophy other than the Supporters' Shield. Throughout the world games are very, very important week in and week out because whoever wins the league standings is the champion and then you have your cups or whatever the case may be. I understand this is a very American-type thing, to do a playoff format, but I think it does tend to slight teams like San Jose who don't quite get it at the right page at the right time."
And here's what he had to say about the MLS regular season.
"It's difficult to keep games hyped up in June and July. The fact is they're not as important. San Jose wins the entire conference and unfortunately for them they have to play us in a two-game series where they have to go on the road for one game and then go try to pull it together at home."
Now, what's different this time around is that New York won 3-0 on the road as opposed to winning the first game and then holding serve on the road. But Hartman was dead on back then about his observations regarding the regular season and those words ring true today. Games are not as important in June and July. They just are not. They weren't important in June/July 2005 and they weren't important in June/July 2008. More teams has not translated into more meaning. Statistically it is more difficult to make the playoffs now than it was in '05. There were 12 teams then with eight going through and now there are eight from 14. But that's still more than half, and statistically it is more likely for a team to make the playoffs than to miss them.
At this point of the playoffs, the Red Bulls have earned their ticket to MLS Cup 08. They have played excellent soccer, probably the best of any team in the postseason. They have gone on the road and pulled out two tough shutout victories, impressive considering they won just once away from Giants Stadium during the regular season. The Red Bulls have been impressive and many more people (including myself) will give them an opportunity to win MLS Cup.
(As an aside, I'd promised a reader to ease up on the playoff bashing but I really just had to get that off my chest.)
Anyway, here's hoping the Red Bulls continue to make noise and expose the playoff system for the pathetic joke that it is.