MLS Cup Final to Remain at Neutral-Site Stadium for 2010

Qwest Field in Seattle hosted the 2009 MLS Cup Final

Qwest Field in Seattle hosted the 2009 MLS Cup Final

With the announcement earlier today that MLS will hold the final of the 2010 MLS Cup Playoffs at a neutral site, it seems a good time to revisit the controversy of whether this is good for the league, the teams, and their fans. Since the league began in 1996, the Final has always been played at a stadium determined before the playoffs began. Twice in the league’s 14 year history did a participating team play the final in their home stadium — DC United defeated Colorado 2-1 at RFK Stadium in 1997 and New England lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 at Gillette Stadium in 2002.

During the recent MLS Cup Final weekend in Seattle, Commissioner Don Garber was asked whether the league would switch to the final game being hosted by the team with the best playoff seeding — shouldn’t the higher seed earn some sort of advantage over their lesser opponent? The Commissioner replied that such a proposal was under consideration, but that no decision had been made for next season and beyond.

We got our answer today with MLS’s announcement that the Cup Final format would remain the same for 2010. In a statement from Garber, he explained the rational behind the decision. “We believe this format will provide an exciting environment for our fans while also allowing the necessary planning time for our key constituents. We will continue to assess the possibility of playing MLS Cup at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team in the future.”

Much of the debate in Seattle on the location of future finals was prior to the actual game taking place — a penalty-kick shootout victory by the eighth seeded Real Salt Lake over the second seeded Los Angeles Galaxy. The arguments in favor of a change in policy basically took on two themes. First, the better seeded finalist deserved an advantage over their lower seeded opponent due to their superior regular season form. Second, fans and supporters of the best team in the Cup Final should be rewarded with hosting the game close to home.

Both points are valid, but can be explained away by the current structure of the MLS Playoffs. The better seeds entering the playoffs get to host the conference championship games, giving their teams the home-field advantage they earn through success in the regular season. Their path to the Final is intended to be the most straightforward in this system. For the fans of the higher seeds, they get the chance to see their team at home in those conference championships.

Those that want to focus on the money side of the equation will point out that the two highest attendances for MLS Cup Final games were in 1997 and 2002 — both “home” games for participating clubs DC United and the New England Revolution. Mere circumstances lead to their hosting the championship, but that didn’t hurt the financial bottom-line for these two events. An MLS Cup record 61,316 attended the game in 2002, while RFK hosted 57,431 in 1997. Having a participating team host the Final sure seems to make financial sense now, doesn’t it?

Sure, if the hosting team can boast a quality stadium with a large attendance capacity, I’m sure MLS would love to have that occurrence every season. What happens if Kansas City (Community America Ballpark capacity = 10,385) or San Jose (Buck Shaw Stadium capacity = 10,300) finish with the highest seed in the playoffs — would the league allow their showcase game to be played in small, temporary stadiums? Nearby locations could be substituted, but that doesn’t seem to fit the rational for having them host the final in the first place.

For sports where the champion is determined by a series of games — baseball, basketball, hockey — it makes sense to let the better seeded team host more games. However, when the championship is settled in a winner-take-all single game format, a neutral-site location makes the most sense. Neither team is given a huge advantage over the other. This works for other soccer tournaments — FA Cup, UEFA Champions League — and the biggest sports final in the United States — The NFL’s Super Bowl. The distractions of a home-crowd disappear and the best team on the night emerges as champion. The best supporters for each club will continue to make the trek to see their team, providing an exciting environment for all in attendance.

As MLS tries to grow their Cup Final beyond just a game to “event” status, continuing to choose a neutral-site location is paramount. Weekend activities leading up the Final, which often require lengthy planning periods, create a better overall experience for the teams and their fans. The local supporters can also get involved, and perhaps develop their own enthusiasm for their local team’s future prospects. Seattle proved in 2009 that a host city can embrace the Final even without their team participating. The challenge is for future host cities to do the same.

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11 Responses to MLS Cup Final to Remain at Neutral-Site Stadium for 2010

  1. Joey Clams says:

    I just hope that the putzes that make the decisions put the darn thing back on grass. If they do, I just might watch.

  2. Oscar says:

    I think this is an example of how MLS is still growing, and its choices should reflect that. Getting the MLS Cup was a big boost to early Sounders Momentum. Why not give the same punch to Portland or Philadelphia this year?

  3. stevebeau says:

    Red Bull Arena.

  4. Joey Clams says:

    I’m sorry but playing the final on plastic is pathetic. Thank goodness that Masterpiece Theatre was a viewing option for me last year.

  5. Charles says:

    What is funny about American soccer is how everyone moves in synch in their opinions. I have been saying for years now it is rediculous the ref keeps the time on the field secret, why can’t he control the scoreboard from the field, so everyone knows where we stand. Virtually EVERYONE was opposed, now I have Fergie on my side, I wonder where the masses will go.
    I actually LOVE the plastic. Faster game. He probably won’t join me on that one. 😉

    I don’t think last year proved you can have good attendance at a neutral site.
    Are you saying last year proved that cities will draw many fans to their games?
    is a huge outlier to a league that has drawn 15k/game every season for 15 years. Plus attendance would have been much smaller if they did the ticket allocation differently…even in Seattle

  6. Lars says:

    I love how we’ve replaced ‘Seattle Sounders supporters’ with ‘The best supporters from each club’

    There were like ten people from the non-Seattle sides in the MLS Cup because Sounders fans went and bought all the tickets before anyone else could.


    Come on guys, get more original and support one of the sides on the pitch please.

    • Miami Ultra says:

      That’s why MLS Cup should be a home/home 2 game aggregate. Don’t want fans of a non-participating team there? Don’t play at a neutral site. why should the first round be a 2 game set but not the rest? Makes no sense. This isn’t Europe. For a still young league/sport in this country, expecting fans to travel to a neutral site thousands of miles away is crazy. The only reason the NFL gets away with it here is because it’s the NFL. Give both teams a home game, best record gets game 2.

  7. Charles says:

    I understand your basic point ( and your hatred for the Sounders and their fans )….

    …But there were quite a few people there from Salt Lake. I would guess 10,000 fans or so. LA, 6,000, with the other 30,000 Sounders fans.
    Kind of like a typical MLS game I guess, 15k with no Sounders fans, 30k with Sounders fans. Seeeeeaaaaatle, Sooooouuuuunders

    [Sorry not usually so cocky, but Lars has personally attacked me more than once]

  8. 640-802 says:

    it maybe a good news for me,maybe i can goto there !!!!!-_-

  9. Tom says:

    It should be in Las Vegas every year.

  10. Jason says:

    Looks like USSF and MLS gave up the fight for 2018 and 2022. Maybe 2026 is an option…

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