In some sports, the championship game transcends athletics and becomes a cultural event touching millions of people’s lives.
Americans know — with a surety that parallels knowing the declaration of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — that American football culminates in the Super Bowl. The annual event has evolved from a standard televised football game with halftime marching bands (and a mostly-but-not-entirely full stadium) to a national holiday rivaling Thanksgiving in food consumption and record-breaking audiences for anything that’s ever been broadcast in the U.S.
Soccer’s ultimate prize, the World Cup, approaches a staggering 1 billion viewers for its quadrennial final game, with a literal global audience fixated on 22 players and the movement of a single ball — no matter where in the world the game is played.
The MLS Cup is the ultimate prize in Major League Soccer, the top-flight league in American (and Canadian) soccer, but it doesn’t yet have the audience or gravitas of a Super Bowl or World Cup.
Indeed, last year’s final between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo drew a live audience of just over 30,000 and a rating of 0.8 for its ESPN telecast — placing it well below your average (or even below-average) Sunday NFL tilt.
But for the growing number of American soccer fans, Saturday’s MLS Cup (a rematch of last year’s Cup game) is an opportunity to see an evolving league in its 17th season, as well as a now-established rivalry between two of its consistently strongest teams and storylines with a decidedly international reach.
The Galaxy is arguably the best known of any American pro soccer team, which, of course, has everything to do with Landon Donovan and David Beckham.
Donovan, 30, the longtime anchor of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, as well as a mainstay of the Galaxy’s lineup, is contemplating not returning to the Galaxy after Saturday’s game — largely because of an exhausting schedule that’s seen him play a game every eight days for the past 12 years, according to a recent Los Angeles Times article.
Donovan, who’s also had stints with English Premier League team Everton and two Bundesliga teams, could stop playing after Saturday and still be regarded as the best American soccer player to date.
Beckham, at age 37, came to the Galaxy in 2007, in the latter stages of a 20-year career that started with EPL powerhouse Manchester United and included stops at two of the best-ever European clubs, Real Madrid and AC Milan.
His announcement last week that this would be his last MLS game has — according to the observations of many and the criticisms of more than a few — overshadowed the actual match and even led respected pundits to wonder aloud if this is the rare Jordan or Gretzky case of the player being bigger than the league.
Those ostensibly in the know project that, rather than retiring, he’ll go back to an English club team, go to the newly-relevant Paris St. Germain, or even head to Australia’s burgeoning A-League. The first published rumors (from the BBC's website) have him negotiating with French second-tier team AS Monaco, which does have the immediately obvious advantage of playing in super-swanky Monaco.
Though Donovan and Beckham are the focal point of casual soccer fans who know the Galaxy, there are other reasons the Galaxy are in their eighth Cup finals – including Robbie Keane, the best player on Ireland’s national squad; Edson Buddle, a veteran Galaxy and USMNT veteran forward; and four players who hail from soccer-crazy Brazil, including creative force Juninho.
Despite the spotlight on the Galaxy, the Dynamo aren’t exactly the Washington Generals to the Galaxy’s Harlem Globetrotters. Playing in their fourth final in several years, the Dynamo are anchored by stalwart goal Tally Hall, team MVP Brad Davis, newcomer and Honduran international Boniek Garcia, team captain Brian Ching, and leading goal-scorer Will Bruin.
To get to the finals, Houston had to get past two higher-seeded opponents: Sporting Kansas City, which has four players in the league’s Best XI, and D.C. United, one of the league’s original franchises, returning to the playoffs this year after a recent drought.
Though most of those in the know expect the Galaxy to win, New York Times contributor Ian Thomson paints a hope-giving picture of the Dynamo as a scrappy, spirited underdog team, and Reuters correspondent Simon Evans characterizes the game as a battle between the “rich and the resourceful,” with the Dynamo cast in the David role to L.A.’s Goliath.
The MLS Cup will be broadcast 3:30 pm CT Saturday on ESPN and Telefutura and will be shown in the usual soccer-friendly establishments.