MLS Cup at home comes with risk

November 26, 2012

This season’s MLS Cup was awarded to the finalist with the most points during the regular season for the first time, a shift from the pre-selected neutral venue of the previous 16 championships. On Saturday afternoon, all but the pockets of Dynamo orange will support the Galaxy and watch David Beckham‘s Los Angeles farewell at Home Depot Center (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Telefutura).

The early forecast calls for a temperature in the upper 60s and a slight chance of rain.

MLS couldn’t have planned it any better. Who needs nine months of lead time when two weeks will do?

But the league also lucked out.

Had the Supporters’ Shield winners, the San Jose Earthquakes, advanced to the final, the preliminary plan to play at Stanford Stadium would’ve crumbled. Stanford’s football team ended up finishing with the best record in the Pacific-12 and will host the championship game Friday night against UCLA, a circumstance that would have rendered the 50,000-seat venue off-limits to MLS.

By advancing to the final, the Quakes would have had to commit to tiny Buck Shaw Stadium (inappropriate for a grand finale), Candlestick Park (in the middle of the NFL season), or AT&T Park, a baseball yard with a gorgeous bayside backdrop but imperfect sightlines.

Weather would not have been an issue this year in Kansas City or Washington, home to the second- and third-best clubs during the regular season. Based on early forecasts, MLS would have also avoided problems in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Columbus, even Denver and Salt Lake City. (Thank you, climate change.) Just cool rain in Seattle and Portland.

Boston and Toronto are going to be cold and Montreal is calling for an afternoon high of 31. Fortunately for MLS, none of those clubs qualified for the playoffs. If necessary, Vancouver would have closed the roof at BC Place.

The decision to award a home game to a finalist was the right one: The game deserves an impassioned audience for the purposes of stadium atmosphere and TV images. The neutral-site policy worked in most cases: Three “hosts” happened to advance to the final in 16 years; Seattle put on a great show; and Los Angeles and Washington were reliable. But MLS also took a public relations hit with no-shows, early departures and general indifference in places such as Dallas and Toronto.

The predetermined venue had run its course.

But allowing a participant to host doesn’t come without risk. MLS is playing with fire in, ahem, Chicago. A snow squall postponed the New York Red Bulls vs. D.C. United playoff match in early November. Commissioner Don Garber, a volunteer with the auxiliary snow removal crew at Red Bull Arena, would throw out his back helping shovel the center circle in Denver during an early December storm.

I know what some are thinking: If MLS would only move to the international calendar, the premier match would take place under gorgeous conditions in May. Absolutely true. But then a large chunk of the regular season would fall under threat. This is North America, not England. It’s harsh in much of the United States and Canada for at least three months. There’s a reason some northern European countries end their domestic seasons around now. Unless MLS’s northern clubs agree to play a long string of away matches or the league shuts down for several months, the standard soccer calendar doesn’t work here.

Hence, MLS Cup will remain a late-autumn event played on a colorful hometown stage — and someday, perhaps, with a curtain of white snow.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff · November 26, 2012