Owing to a stupid clause inserted into the Designated Player’s MLS contract while I was busy browsing real estate listings — mainly for penthouses without views of the shacks my Grantland teammates are kept in — I apparently have to “participate in the playoffs.” This, in general, is not what I came to America for. Even worse, on further investigation it turns out that “participation” involves more than delivering the odd platitude about the standard of play in MLS, while being photographed somewhere in a darkened VIP room that also includes Tony Parker, Kelly Ripa, Russell Brand, and a minor Jonas — I actually have to play.
Knowing that this may involve contact with the former academy players who keep circulating colds among themselves, I immediately got my new agent on the phone with my list of demands — that is, if MLS wants to see the legendary “DP bounce” in attendance figures this year (I also got him to trademark DP Bounce™).
At first league management were pretty tense about the whole thing — probably remembering the play-for-chocolate-covered-jets clause I’d encouraged the mortal members of my team to ask for during the last CBA negotiations. But when I explained that I just wanted a wholesale format change for the playoffs inserted by Wednesday, they relaxed and were actually pretty cool about it all, making me wish I’d pushed for the “DP goals count double” rule I’d been toying with asking for.
So I’m delighted to present, with my full and meaningful participation, the Designated Playoffs™ …
The format for the Designated Playoffs™ is the same knockout format as the previously planned playoffs, with the same teams participating, and the same seeding, but with one crucial rule change:
All non-designated players are forbidden from entering the playing field during game time.
This one was a little tricky to slip past the executives, until I explained to them that if they did some careful PowerPointing on future sponsorship presentations, the league’s average standard of play, according to the EA Sports rankings I check for these things, would now jump an average of 780 percent (with a little massaging in the Toronto area). They still looked unconvinced, until I pointed out that this rule brought the chances of this year’s final ending up at Buck Shaw down to somewhere close to zero …
The league signed off on it.
And here is how the Designated Playoffs went down …
Eastern Conference Wild-Card Round
Chicago Fire (Sherjill MacDonald, Alvaro Fernandez) vs. Houston Dynamo (Oscar Boníek Garcia, Ricardo Clark)
Controversy right from the off in this one. As the two teams trotted out at the start of the game, MacDonald, getting his offsides in early, accidentally trod on his teammate’s heel. Fernandez went down in slow motion, clutching his heart, ankle, and groin, before lying very still on the turf for the remainder of the game — getting up two minutes before the end to wince, hobble in the manner of a Pirates of the Caribbean extra, and wave an imaginary yellow card, red card, and subpoena at the referee. In the meantime, MacDonald was overrun. He/Chicago was clearly unprepared for the midfield movement of Dominic Kinnear’s 2 formation, brought in this summer to compensate for the departure of Geoff Cameron (and refined upon my DP ONLY™ rule that saw the departure of everyone else). The playoff experience of Ricardo Clark guided his team home — despite a late booking for time-wasting after persistent infractions while retrieving the ball for throw-ins. The winning goal was actually a miss-hit visionary pass from Boníek Garcia to the space Mac Kandji usually sprints into just before the ball runs out of play.
The game was also memorable for Chicago’s Section 8 unveiling a huge tifo featuring Hristo Stoichkov inserted into key scenes of the Haymarket riots and showing various Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, as described by Frank Klopas speaking to a blogger.
Score: Chicago, 0, Houston, 1
Western Conference Wild-Card Game
L.A. Galaxy (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (Kenny Miller, Barry Robson)
Vancouver coach Martin Rennie found himself on the steepest part of the learning curve he has been surfing all year, after his controversial decision to bench both his designated players backfired miserably when he realized there was nobody to sub off, having decided to bring them on late in the second half. Rennie could be seen staring fixedly ahead into space at that point, while behind him on the bench Miller and Robson bickered in impenetrable Scottish accents about which city had the better nightlife: Cardiff or Middlesborough.
It was all the more frustrating for the Whitecaps, as for once the Galaxy were there for the taking. Donovan’s recent spiritual ennui had infected the other two designated players, who spent most of the game in the center circle questioning each other’s desire for the game. Eventually Keane, whose constant movement may or may not have been an indirect result of disorientation caused by the flashbulbs at every Beckham set piece, broke the circle of trust by calling it “loada bollix, wha?” and fed the ball into the path of Donovan, who found himself following play instinctively to stab the ball home, then stab the ball, then feel bad about it, then say he was too old for this shit. After a long consultation with his management company about “optimum sight lines” and “favorable roster-clutter visuals,” Beckham added an aesthetically pleasing second. Donovan was seen staring at it vacantly, saying “Great. Beauty.”
Asked for his thoughts after the game, Bruce Arena said “Why don’t you ask me about the ass-backward rule change?” Then he smirked and refused to comment when somebody did. Later Rennie revealed that he had actually started his Designated Players but had not told them, as part of a complex mind game. He then acknowledged he’d “maybe tried to do a teeny bit too much” and that the team would come back “weaker” next year.
Score: L.A. Galaxy 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 0
Eastern Conference Semifinals
D.C. United (Hamdi Salihi) vs. New York Red Bulls (Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Rafael Marquez)
More controversy in this one, as the New York players showed up their customary 20 minutes late for the first leg to find themselves 4-0 down — Salihi having converted that many of the 40 chances he’d made for himself. Having shown up and finished yawning, the Red Bulls rallied to tie the game, but as the sides came off the field, Marquez, donned in full ninja gear, clotheslined Salihi and began ostentatiously flicking through a Baltimore Chamber of Commerce pamphlet in front of D.C. coach Ben Olsen. In the bench-clearing melee that followed, Marquez somehow slipped out of the stadium and was next seen in February 2013 signing a new five-year contract, with a clause renaming the side the New York Marquez.
Salihi meanwhile was banned for inciting the incident, and with New York winning 7-6 in the second half of the second leg at Red Bull Arena (after conceding six own goals in a manner that coach Hans Backe called “disappointing, really”), Tim Cahill ran into one too many walls for the team and was himself declared structurally unsound. New York saw out the match with Henry standing in the middle of the field with one foot on the ball, hands on hips, looking at the sky. After the game he sat in the center circle with a towel over his head and making a sound that sounded like “zooooooowfffffffah” before swapping shirts with himself and exchanging a private joke and a nod of respect to the same worthy opponent. DC coach Ben Olsen was later seen on the freeway, sarcastically applauding traffic.
Score: D.C. United 4, New York 4 (first leg); New York 7, D.C. United 6 (second leg) (New York win 11-10)
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Sporting Kansas City ( … ) vs. Houston Dynamo (Oscar Boníek Garcia, Ricardo Clark)
Without a designated player to field, Peter Vermes opted to line up with “attitude,” “work rate,” and “this thing called love” in the first leg in Houston. Initially it seemed he’d been out-thought by the canny Dominic Kinnear, who had shifted his formation to an experimental and fluid 1-1. With Boníek Garcia and Clark switching positions constantly and dropping deep when necessary (never), the Dynamo had encouraging 100 percent possession stats, though tired somewhat in the Texan heat and forgot to shoot.
In the return leg, Kinnear, perhaps falling for the fashionable infatuation with all things Barcelona, went with a 0-1-0-1-0-0 formation (with both “1”s false), but found himself undone by Vermes in the opposing technical area — which owing to some restructuring by Sporting owner Robb Heineman, who’d claimed he was “just painting a wall,” was now 76 yards deep. Every time Clark or Boníek Garcia came near the Sporting half, they found themselves repelled by Vermes, standing directly in front of them and yelling at his lack of players that they had to “WORK HARDER FOR EACH OTHER.” By the time the game drifted to penalties, both Houston men were weeping openly, and could not participate further. Sporting scored the decisive kick via Vermes sound waves oscillating the ball painstakingly into the net. It took seven hours and 14 minutes to cross the line. Afterward Vermes claimed that “sometimes you have to grind out a result.” Kinnear lamented his side’s “unwillingness to track back” and conceded that his team may have been a little “impatient in their build-up play.”
Score: Houston Dynamo 0, Sporting Kansas City 0 (first leg); Sporting Kansas City 0, Houston Dynamo 0 (second leg) (Sporting Kansas City win 1-0 after 87 penalties)
Western Conference Semifinals
San Jose Earthquakes ( … ) vs L.A. Galaxy (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane)
The California Clasico lived up to its billing with two very different games. In the first leg, the Galaxy welcomed the Earthquakes to the eerie atmosphere that is a midweek Home Depot Center. Galaxy management having negotiated a special arrangement that allowed them to break the club’s usual noise-restricting attendance cap for midweek games, the stadium was full to bursting with a sellout crowd. Among them, though, as a condition of the expanded capacity, was a handpicked section of the Orange County chapter of the L.A. Riot Squad, who were charged with keeping everyone quiet. So effective was their system of ticketing and passive-aggressive shaming that the only sound heard all night was Landon Donovan performing selected Joy Division medleys to himself.
Keane, whose permanent expression of bewildered disgust had been revealed to the press in the exhaustive media buildup to the game as a “mistrust of bougainvillea,” happened to glance up early in the game and, seeing the flora lining the HDC, was a shadow of his normal self all night. Beckham, though, was magnificent — rolling back the years with a series of long passes, set pieces, and product endorsements that culminated with the Englishman facing the crowd, arms outstretched and head thrown back, after scoring the second of his goals on the night. The crowd nodded back appreciatively at a 2-0 victory.
No Beckham in the second leg, as the midfielder was opening an In-N-Out Burger in Walthamstow. Keane, whom Arena had taken to sardonically referring to as “Petal,” was marked out of the second leg by his own demons and gave the San Jose crowd hope with an early own goal on a pass back through the space Omar Gonzalez occasionally occupies. It was left to Donovan to drive the Galaxy forward, and this was a game where he at last rediscovered the fire within — actually emerging for the second half dressed as Uncle Sam and scoring a leader’s hat trick, before catching sight of himself in an ESPN monitor and suddenly turning pensive again.
With the Galaxy leading 5-1 on aggregate, San Jose had been suspiciously quiet up to this point, mainly owing to having no Designated Players and a combined salary bill marginally short of what’s required to get one to appear at a Sweet 16 party. As the game ticked into the third minute of stoppage time though, the Goonies rallied. Noting that the new DP rule only forbade non-DPs from the field of play, they revealed a complex ballista-like contraption behind their own goal and began hurling Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart in high arcs over the Galaxy crossbar. Having plundered three quickfire scrappy goals via this method, yet another stirring late Earthquakes rally was halted when Lenhart “tangled” with Keane in the box as he landed from 63 feet, and both players were ejected before the clock finally ran out. With San Jose’s comeback foiled, a relieved Galaxy advanced. Asked if he was looking forward to the Western Conference final, Arena quipped “Bite me,” then followed up with “He’s a good player. He doesn’t get the credit from you [the media] perhaps, but he’s a good player.” When pressed, he refused to clarify who he was talking about.
Score: L.A. Galaxy 2, San Jose 0 (first leg); San Jose 4, L.A. Galaxy 3 (second leg) (L.A. Galaxy win 5-4)
Western Conference Semifinals
Real Salt Lake (Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales) vs. Seattle Sounders FC (Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales, Christian Tiffert)
According to anecdotal evidence, 937,632 people were in attendance in Seattle for the first leg of this much-anticipated semifinal, which was preceded by the sight of Fredy Montero warming up right by the Seattle bench, in front of a smouldering Eddie Johnson, while sporting an exaggeratedly sad face. Occasionally he would break off from his jogging and say, “That’s so sad. I thought you would be designated. I’m a designate. That’s so sad. You sure you’re not a designate? That’s so sad. OK, I’m going to go play now. Maybe I’ll score some goals. Pray for me, Eddie Johnson. Pray I score some goals.”
The first leg was played in a surreal atmosphere, as the Emerald City Supporters, aware of Chicago’s recent giant tifo antics, spent the first 87 minutes choreographing an animated family tree of Seattle musical history that attempted to demonstrate the influence of Sigi Schmid on Bleach and featuring a live cameo from Arlo White representing Britpop. The display was considered by many experts in the field to have jumped the shark for such forms of support, though everyone agreed that it was nice to see Roger Levesque get his due as a key influence on Screaming Trees.
The game itself was a tight one and settled by a moment of invention from Mauro Rosales, just as the ECS display was fragmenting into a chaotic passage documenting obscure solo offshoots, prior to their planned climactic Pearl Jam–Kasey Keller reunion. Taking advantage of the confusion, Rosales slotted home from a Tiffert through ball, running into the space vacated by the injured Javier Morales. Morales had just been felled inadvertently by a field-invading Eddie Johnson, whose target appeared to be Montero performing a mime of crying on the opposite touchline.
With the score at 1-0, the second leg in Salt Lake was graced by an unexpected campaign appearance by Mitt Romney, though this was cut short when a pregame video of “Believe” was shown to rouse the fans.
Romney left, shuddering “They only come out at night … ” When the game did kick off, Real briefly turned back the clock to the 2010-11 teams, playing neat, concise soccer, managing the game and generally frustrating the Sounders. They took a 2-0 lead on the night, off two Saborio headers, before disaster struck. Having held the side together for one last tilt at the Champions League with the same group of players, Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis had to watch in despair as, having gone one game too far, his players started to unravel into a mass of rubber bands, tattoo ink, Scotch tape, and surgical trusses. Saborio was briefly lashed together again with a hastily trimmed Kyle Beckerman dreadlock, but in the end the Sounders scored twice more to take the game in the final minute. Afterward Fredy Montero dedicated his winning goal to “Eddie Johnson — he helped me achieve. If he’s not special, it’s OK. He’s special for me.”
Score: Seattle 1, Real Salt Lake 0 (first leg); Real Salt Lake 2, Seattle 2 (second leg) (Seattle win 3-2)
Next week: Conference finals and final in the Designated Playoffs™.
Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.