Steve Davis
Friday April 2nd, 2010

The deciders around Major League Soccer started kicking around a bold plan a few months ago. They were in Seattle for the MLS Cup title match and were smitten by the buzz. This wasn't just strong Seattle coffee at work, either. The match and MLS soccer had a real presence in the city.

So the league's board of governors discussed a plan to ensure all MLS Cups generated the same electricity. What about playing the match at the home of the higher-seeded side? That would serve to knock down one complaint over MLS, that regular season achievement is marginalized once the playoffs begin. More importantly, it would ensure that the rompin' and stompin' factor remained high for the championship match itself.

It was a bold plan, one that would represent a radical change, but one with plenty of merit.

So what happened?

MLS commissioner Don Garber announced earlier this week that Toronto would host MLS Cup 2010. In truth, by the time Garber announced the first MLS Cup to be held north of the border, everybody knew the game would return to a neutral site, at least for now.

And Toronto is a good choice for this format. Yes, the weather is a concern. But we're talking about November, after all. There's no place in the country where Mother Nature doesn't pose some threat in the fall. It was a pretty damp and chilly in Seattle last November, you might recall.

FC Dallas and U.S. international defender Heath Pearce pointed out that soccer in Europe plays out over all four seasons, which means some rain, some cold and some of the warm stuff.

"It's just another element you get used to," said Pearce, who played formerly in Denmark and along Germany's bone-chilling northern border in Rostock. "I don't think it's an advantage or disadvantage to either team, it's just an adjustment teams have to make."

There is, after all, a World Cup going on in South Africa this year. And if you're planning an excursion, go ahead and leave the flip flops behind. It will be winter in South Africa this, er, summer.

Toronto officials were all too happy to remind Garber last November that the weather on MLS Cup Sunday last year was simply brilliant in Toronto, 55 degrees and sunny. (Although temperatures surely fell in the evening, and this year's championship will be a nighttime kickoff.) So, the fans will layer up, and the players will be fine for one night in the chilly stuff. (Now, if there's a foot of snow, that's a different story.)

The choice of BMO is fine. Still, MLS missed a chance to make the more adventurous choice, sticking with the safer status quo.

Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts had been an advocate of the major format change. He told me before the MLS Cup in Seattle that he had championed this notion of the higher seed as hosts since he first joined MLS.

"There are very strong arguments for and against," he told me. "The most obvious [against] is that if you have six days to get ready for a championship match, hotels and set-up becomes very, very difficult."

But he thinks the chance to generate real buzz -- the kind of genuine hubbub we saw in Seattle, as opposed to the faux buzz the marketing mavens hope to stir up when they name the next mid-level boy band to perform before the match -- is worth the stretch in logistics. Game presentation, too, is vital in these matters, Checketts believes. And what makes for a better background on TV than chanting, passionate fans on the scene?

He told me it was tough to move the game around each year and expect it to sell out. It won't be a problem at BMO, of course. The fans will show up, just like they did at Qwest last year. But it won't always be so easy. And if Toronto isn't involved this year the fans will be understandably subdued, more BMO-lite than BMO at full crank.

"If this were at Rio Tinto," Checketts said from inside Qwest last year, "you'd be trying to find seats on-line, on Ebay, Stub Hub. And I'd hope they'd be very expensive."

You know in horror movies how directors always set up the audience? The characters are engaged in some blissful delight on a bright and sunny day full of love and promise -- right until the moment somebody gets mangled in a highly grotesque way. Well, that pretty much describes Real Salt Lake's evening during a strange Thursday in Houston.

The league champs were large and in charge despite playing on the road. They had a 1-0 lead while the other team's top scorer, Brian Ching, was off the field with a hamstring strain that's neither good for the Dynamo nor for Bob Bradley's national side.

Then, like a bus that runs a red light, wham! Brad Davis hit two quick PKs and the visitors were rocked by a 2-1 loss. The bigger concern for the champs will be center back Jamison Olave, who had come so far in 2009 to righting the one huge deficiency in his game: that killer propensity to lose focus momentarily. Olave gave up both spot shots. So, was he just the victim of some bad luck here? The first violation was a little clumsy, but nothing horrible. The second did result from a big lunge inside the penalty area, which is always risky. On the other hand, a little embellishment on Luis Angel Landin's part helped referee Jair Marrufo make up his mind.

As for Houston, the midfield mix still needs attention. But it's early, and Houston can never quite get a season going until it has the first cup of coffee, usually around late May.

The Galaxy now has six points from two matches after a 2-0 win over Chivas USA in Thursday's other match. The Goats just aren't going to rise until they find another forward and at least one two-way midfielder to replace the two they lost (Paulo Nagamura and Jesse Marsch). The attack was fairly lame Thursday in the latest Los Angeles derby, one that missed some of the zip and zing we've seen before from this rivalry before.

Chivas USA doesn't have much of a plan on offense at the moment, as Sacha Kljestan still can't seem to release the hand brake. Going over the top to Maykel Galindo or Justin Braun ... well, that's just not going to do it. It's an OK option. But if it becomes the only option, it's way too predictable, especially for a well-organized defense like the Galaxy's.

But does the Mexican Mothership want to spend any money for players? Chivas USA is more interested in getting out of the Home Depot Center right now than in signing pricey talent -- and they do desperately need to get out of the Galaxy's shadow to properly form their own identity around Southern California. And whispers are starting to grow louder around SoCal that Chivas may be closer than you think to doing just that. Imagine that: a second MLS stadium in L.A., while D.C. United and New England continue to languish in their ill-fitting options.

It's a light weekend, with just three matches scheduled. Why? Good question. It's Easter Weekend, and a lot of teams prefer not to be scheduled at home. But that's a momentum killer, a cold water splash after all the hullabaloo of opening week. Word to MLS clubs: teams across the world aren't taking this weekend off, and you shouldn't either.

New England plays at D.C. United, so we'll see if last week's beat down in the heartland was more "fluke" or "forecast" for the Black and Red and new manager Curt Onalfo. New England officials said Thursday that Shalrie Joseph remains questionable after missing last week's 1-0 loss at L.A., but that he's itching to play. Knowing Joseph, that means he'll probably get on the field.

Outside of Denver, the Rapids can make some serious headway into 2010 if they can match last week's road win with a victory in their home opener against Chicago. But these first matches at home can be tricky. MLS sides have won just 12 of the 24 home openers in 2009 and so far in 2010.

Finally, Red Bull New York visits Seattle in what looks like the weekend's best match. A Red Bull visit to Qwest about this time last year went south fast and finished in a 3-0 loss. Hans Backe's squad already looks like a world champion compared to last year's wandering lot, so look for a better match.

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