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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS Cup ’98 has league’s best two teams, but at what cost?

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

PASADENA, Calif. (Saturday, October 24, 1998) -- Memo to Major League Soccer Commissioner Doug Logan: Be careful of what you wish for, because it has a distressing habit of coming true. For weeks now Logan has been continually asked if he and the league weren’t hoping and praying that the Los Angeles Galaxy would get into MLS Cup so Galaxy fans would turn out in huge numbers, giving MLS a record crowd and a big payday. "Not so," Logan insisted over and over. "I hope the two best teams make it to the final."

With the Chicago Fire meeting D.C. United Logan has gotten his wish. But the probable cost to the league will likely be huge.

No one in the League office will exactly come out and say it, but when Jerzy Podbrozny pushed his shootout attempt around Kevin Hartman to seal Chicago’s trip to Pasadena, it was a million dollar goal. The million dollar figure is probably what it will cost MLS not having the Galaxy playing in MLS Cup in front of the home town fans.

MLS claims an advance sale of about 38,000 tickets.With fingers crossed, they were hoping for a walk-up sale of perhaps another 30,000 and possibly even 10,000 more than that. Now, without the home team as a draw, the hope of that walk up sale has all but evaporated. MLS will probably be happy if all the advanced ticket buyers just show up.

The arithmetic is not precise, but let’s assume that not having the Galaxy will cost the match 30,000-40,000 fans. Ticket prices are $60, $40 and $20. Many of the walkups probably would have bought in the lower price ranges, so let’s say an average price of $30. Thus the League is going to end up about $1 million short. For an entity as deep in red ink as MLS, that is a serious loss.

That L.A. didn’t make it to the final should not have come as great a shock as it apparently has to some people. I know what I am about to say is not going to endear me to the many Galaxy fans, but despite all the hype of the past season -- record wins, record scoring, etc. -- when the chips were down, L.A. did not win.

Earlier this year United coach Bruce Arena was talking about how the league has developed in its third season. He said he was surprised, given its all out pursuit of parity, that instead of the teams drawing closer, the league had "tiered." What he was too polite to say directly, is that in its third season MLS is a league with four decent teams and everyone else significantly behind.

The four good teams are United, Los Angeles, Chicago and, when everyone is healthy and playing on the same page, Columbus. Not coincidentally, those were the four finalists for the division titles.

If the Galaxy could have spent the season, and the playoffs, playing against the likes of San Jose, Colorado and Dallas they would have been in great shape (against the three they were a combined 10-2). But look at the Galaxy’s record against the other three quality teams in the League. It was 0-2 against United and failed to score a goal in either match.

Against Columbus, L.A. was 1-1, but the victory was the first match Columbus played after losing five starters to national team duty. Against Chicago, including the playoffs, the Galaxy was 2-4, and one of those wins (1-0 on a very late goal), was at home in the meaningless last match of the season. So overall, against quality opponents, the Galaxy was a combined 3-7.

I certainly did not see every match the Galaxy played this season. But I saw enough to have a definite impression. It seemed to me LA is a side with a number of offensive stars who score often, especially against weak opponents, usually as the result of individual efforts. When the team was operating smoothly, it was due to the play of midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos. But closely marked Cienfuegos is less effective, and against United’s Richie Williams or the Fire’s Chris Armas (especially in the two playoff games), he all but disappeared.

I thought Chicago’s clinching win against L.A. at Soldier Field was the most gripping MLS match I saw this season. United defeated the Fire twice this year, 3-1 and 4-1, but there were a number of late goals and the matches were more even than the scores would indicate. Chicago has gotten better as the season has progressed. The two teams are very even now. A well rested Chicago may have the advantage.

The key match-up is Williams versus Peter Nowak. If Nowak is contained, United wins. If not, the match is a toss-up. My prediction: United 3-1.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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