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Styles Make Fights (or Why The Neutral Should Be JAZZED for MLS Cup 2013)

The highlight reel from their contest this past July shows it all. A contrast in fighting styles between opponents often generates momentous bouts. It happens again this weekend. They step into the ring in Sporting Park this Saturday at 4:00pm on ESPN. In one corner, you have Real Salt Lake’s lovely, passing style and elegance. In the opposing corner, you have Sporting Kansas City’s long-balling intensity and grit. Both sides love to possess the ball, but one side is fierce while the other has flair. Salt Lake may dictate most of the match’s tempo, but Kansas City will counter-punch when RSL is not looking, or when Salt Lake has thrown that single, wild, uncontrolled punch. This promises to be a stirring final. The weather will be bitterly cold. The fans will be a joyous, blustering mess. What more could you possibly want from a futbol final?

The reactions I’ve gleaned from the soccer denizens of my local pubs have generally been a collective, consensual yawn.

Oh, apathy: you bored, blithe beast. This final promises to be the most enticing MLS Cup Final we’ve had in some time. No longer do we have to face the crushing monotony of yet another LA Galaxy vs Houston Dynamo match-up. Or the brutish mixture of the sweetly aesthetic FC Dallas vs the smash-mouth ugliness of the Colorado Rapids during the 2010 Final (viewed by a half-empty BMO Field).

This upcoming bout in Kansas City is a final to get excited for.

So, where does the collective apathy come from?

One of the main complaints I’ve heard is that the contest is between two teams from smaller markets. The final will gain an intense, local interest from both the Kansas City and Salt Lake press. However, these two teams have a national appeal that is next to nil. Even hardcore MLS fans I know are having a difficult time getting excited about the upcoming tie.

Is MLS still too local a league to garner the kind of national attention the NFL can capture with its dullest, most lackluster contest? In terms of MLS, do fans still only engage with their local-market teams? Then, when they turn to the soccer-world at large, do they only turn to their international clubs (read: Manchester City fans raised in Boise, Idaho)?

It’s a truth you find in every sport. Every sport and every league wrestles with this. Oftentimes, fans aren’t watching the game. They’re watching the spectacle that surrounds the game. The play on the field itself is immaterial. Gridiron Football fans who sing the praises of the college game are often not taking into account the play-on-the-field’s quality. The NFL game’s quality is clearly higher. The best of the best are being paid the best to play their best in the NFL. But nobody would deny the magic of the college game. There’s a romance to “Roll Tide” you will simply not find in “J-E-T-S.” College football fans are enamored with the national attention to the culture and atmosphere surrounding the game.

MLS Cup doesn’t have the overt dressings of a classic bout. However, what promises to happen between the touchlines could prove to be a fantastic bit of soccer. But, to so many, what happens on the field is less important to what surrounds it in terms of blood, soil, and culture. The argument against watching MLS has often been the quality of play on the field. However, these same deriders will fawn over any match in Europe, despite the quality that is happening on the field. A recent double-header I watched on a Saturday morning-into-afternoon involved an weary battle between a pair of English Premier League teams in a relegation dogfight, followed by the second leg of a MLS Conference Final. The Premiership game had an intensely physical tenor and lacked technical savvy. The MLS Conference Final lacked a certain grace and finesse, but was well-organized and extremely entertaining from a soccer perspective (not to mention the atmosphere was electric, even if the stadium was not sold out).

Yet, all I heard from some of the pub locals the rest of the day was how fantastic the English game had been and how shit the MLS game was.

They were watching the spectacle around the game and not the game itself. What was happening on the field was irrelevant.

All this is nothing new. There seems a strange resistance for some to embracing the American brand of futbol (despite a global culture that generally encourages supporting the local game, regardless of commerce or quality). Is the culture simply too young to feel a sense of confidence in its own worth? It often feels like the Junior Class that constantly looks to the Senior Class for validation.

MLS+Cup+Portraits+Twx5Rbp90mflIt’s a shame, because this final could prove to be a proverbial barn-burner. Jason Kreis is one of the most exciting young coaches the league possesses. He has created a clear, definitive style for his team that is unmistakeable. RSL is a unit that plays with singular scope. By most accounts, they should likely win the match on Saturday. If they can hold and move the ball effectively and not allow Kansas City to break up their play, they are clear favorites. It would be a fantastic finale for Kreis’ season, whose team was supposed to be in a rebuilding year. Finally proving its merit in a meaningful final at home with the Conference Final at Rio Tinto (which had become a bit of a feat after notable losses in their home stadium during the CONCACAF Champions League and this year’s US Open Cup defeat against woeful DC United), this team could be firmly on course for winning its second MLS Cup since 2009.

vermes2Ah, but then there’s Peter Vermes and SKC. Strong and resilient with biting pragmatism. This is a team that can willfully play a game just physical enough to break up Salt Lake’s style without wreaking disciplinary havoc.

Classic boxer vs slugger. This is a final to relish. Perhaps it won’t be a clinical masterpiece (finals in any sport often aren’t masterclasses in their given discipline, both teams can fall into some cynical play as they try not to lose as opposed to win), but it should be a great battle of strategy and mettle. If you’re an MLS neutral, this might be the match to tune into on Saturday.

Photos by Harry How & Getty Images North America

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