Sounders FC

McGrath: MLS no-win system encourages mediocrity

The first crowd to watch Seattle Sounders FC play to a tie at Qwest Field behaved as though it were familiar with the nobody-wins, nobody-loses ritual.

It booed. Even when a few Sounders FC players turned toward the stands and applauded the fans for their support, the crowd booed some more.

Referee Tim Weyland and his assistants, Darren Clark and Emiliano Monje, were the object of the fans’ scorn – a pair of controversial decisions on Sunday went against the home team – but I’m inclined to believe the 1-1 score also contributed to the frustration.

Late in the game, as it was becoming apparent the Los Angeles Galaxy would be content to settle for its sixth tie in eight games, I tried to recall the last time I saw a pro sports event end in a no-decision.

I came up with a football game my father took me to in Chicago, between the Bears and 49ers. Dad had a habit of arriving well before kickoff, and leaving early to beat the traffic. Anyway, with a few minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Bears held what appeared to be comfortable a 30-20 lead. When we turned on the car radio, we learned San Francisco had salvaged a 30-30 tie, and what had been a wonderful afternoon was, well, not spoiled – that’s too strong a word – but tainted.

This was in 1966.

The only other tie game I can remember watching in the 43 years since then was for the 1995 NAIA football championship at the Tacoma Dome, where Jon Kitna’s Central Washington Wildcats played the University of Findlay to a draw. Without an overtime format in place, the players were as uncertain how to react to a shared national-championship trophy as the fans.

Like virtually every other sport, college football has implemented rules that prevent tie games. For reasons that make sense to soccer purists and baffle the rest of us, the MLS defiantly embraces a tradition that might best be called an acquired taste.

Hey, it’s just a game, right? Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes – OK, most of the time, if you’re playing the kind of kill-the-clock game mastered by the Los Angeles Galaxy – you do neither.

Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid has no problems with league rules that enable and perhaps even encourage tie games, but he wants you to know his guys weren’t satisfied with earning a point in the standings, on a day they made an aggressive push to earn three. Despite the manpower disadvantage posed by James Riley’s red card – the defender was ejected for “violent conduct” in the 57th minute – the Sounders forced the action.

“The thing we showed more than anything is we’re a team that wants to win games when we’re in games,” said Schmid. “We’re at home, we felt we owed it to our fans to get forward and get after it. I’m proud of that mentality and attitude. We want to play soccer. We want to win games. We don’t want to just keep it close and hope we can sneak one in. That’s not our philosophy.”

But it takes two to tango, and the Galaxy was disinclined to risk a sure standings point gained from a tie by doing something brash – mounting an attack, say, that could produce the ultimate payoff, an actual score.

The three points Los Angeles stood to gain for a victory was no inducement: Better to escape Qwest Field with one point than no points.

It’s a strange way for pro athletes to go about their business, settling for mediocrity week after week. But as long as the league awards points for Just Doing Enough, mediocrity is here to stay.

Alternatives?

The MLS began its first year, in 1996, with shootouts to determine the victor of a game tied after 90 minutes. Shootout winners were awarded one point, shootout losers got none.

Three years later, the shootout system was replaced by Plan B: a pair of five-minute, sudden-death overtimes. That also proved unsatisfying, which led to the format in place at Qwest Field on Sunday – no shootout and no sudden death, just a deliberate, plodding march to an unfulfilling, inconclusive verdict.

The MLS might want to reconsider reviving the shootout format, and borrow from the NHL. Shootout winners in regular-season NHL games are awarded two points – same as they’d gain in a conventional victory – while shootout losers are credited with one point.

In other words, somebody wins, but nobody loses.

Neither team won Sunday at Qwest Field.

“I’m upset about the result,” said Seattle midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, “We should have won, and we could have won. But circumstances didn’t agree with us.”

“It was a tie game,” said forward Nate Jaqua, “that feels like a loss.”

Tell me about it.

The player responsible for the Bears settling for tie game against the 49ers in 1966? Linebacker Joe Fortunato. His 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness put San Francisco in position to kick the game-tying field goal.

Once in a while, I’m tempted to forgive Fortunato. In time, I won’t hold him responsible for reducing a perfect afternoon into a tainted one.

But it’s only been 43 years.

John McGrath: 253-597-8742; ext. 6154

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com">john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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