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Studs Up: The MLS Regular Season tedious?

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After engaging with the titanic Kansas City Royals season the MLS Regular Season is feeling a little empty.

Ed Zurga

Infuriating.

The Royals were trailing with two outs at the bottom of the 9th inning when the Twitter feed on my iPad started to fly.  Kansas City people were WOWing and YAYing and generally making happy noises while I stamped around the living room, willing my cable box to finish rebooting and get me back to the game.

As has been the norm for a number of weeks, the cycle of hatred and love for the Royals has flowed backwards and forwards.  Fans have taken to mimicking the Orwellian-style ‘we love you, Big Brother Royals’ rapture in between cursing their very existence as they have succeeded and failed at different times. I’d quit watching in a fit of rage 30 minutes earlier, and grudgingly tuned back in late in the game "just in case" they managed to pull out a win.

This has been the story of weeks and weeks of Royals baseball for me and tens of thousands of other Kansas Citians as the Royals stumble on towards their first postseason since 1985.

It is fantastic one minute, depressing the next and you just can’t avoid keeping track.

The Royals’ quest for the postseason began in earnest in late May.  Local radio, media, and fans pretty well had them done for another year; then then they started winning - often in spite of themselves.  The oft-used word ‘Yosted’ has grown to pithy levels as the man leading the charge has assumed Mr. MaGoo-esque abilities to make decisions.  #HeyHeyHeyHey is the hash tag that trends online when the Royals invariably pull off yet another win.

Me? I am just along for the ride, wondering how long a team that can’t hit can keep going and loving it .. at least until Time Warner Cable decides that I don’t need to see a weird infield ‘bloop’ turn an attempt to steal third become a winning run.  Of course I only got to see it via animated GIFs …. on Vine.  The tragedy of not sharing that moment was profound: the Royals swerved from abject sadness to glee within seconds in a moment that the incomparably-gifted (within this market) Rany Jazayerli described as "Just the single greatest moment I've experienced as a Royals fan in 29 years."

The Royals are fighting for their postseason lives right now.

Things are looking different for the Chiefs.  Two games, two defeats, and injuries -- always the injuries.  The fledgling NFL season is barely underway, and it is already looking like the Chiefs are on a highway to nothing.  Nobody has given up yet, but the jadedness that was beaten into everybody during the collapse against the Indianapolis Colts hasn’t entirely left.  38-10 up in the third quarter, then injuries and the quicksand of panic conspired to rob the Chiefs of a victory that looked SO certain that people refused to believe it was so .. until it wasn’t.  It might have been the most depressing sports moment of 2013 within my circles. I remember waking up for work the next morning just feeling down … just blue.  Still next year, right?

Except next year has started with two losses. One predictably against the Denver Broncos, but the Titans? That wasn’t meant to happen.  Rather sadly, I have yet to see more than a minute of it.  Life obligations and travel have sucked me away.  I’m off on my travels again this coming week – by the time I get to actually watch them play, the Chiefs season may well be over.

A defeat this weekend against the Dolphins, and you’ll have to start looking at the Chiefs in terms of 2015.  Premature? Maybe, but the gravity of a single NFL Regular Season game is profound: it carries 6.25% of the season’s weight with it - you need to win no less than eight, and probably nine or more of these games to have a shot of the postseason, and the Chiefs are already in the hole and beaten up.  They can afford to drop no more than five games for the remainder of the season, or they are done, and that is pressure.  It all counts, and there is almost no recovery time.

While the MLB season has a 162-game curve, it builds towards a miniscule postseason party that includes 10 teams, two of which are summarily dispatched before the real business gets underway.  You have to win your division to lock down a place or run the gauntlet of qualifying via Wildcard system and an extra post season series to see if you get to actually stick around.  It is tough in a league of 30 teams.  Not as tough as the Royals have made it, but tough regardless.  The NFL is a different cat with a similar setup.  32 teams funnel their way into a 12-team postseason, but getting there requires that they win from day one and keep winning because failure to do so can mean a swift exit from everything relevant.

There is pressure to perform and then there is MLS … where Sporting Kansas City have notched up two comprehensive victories over the tawdry Toronto FC and Chivas USA since their last win on July 26th against Toronto.  A dozen games, three wins, defeat after defeat - conceding three goals three games in a row, and the upshot of it all is, I still know that Sporting Kansas City are going to the playoffs. With 10 defeats. For a handful of the very poorest teams this ‘dream’ is over, for the couple of the also-ran clubs, the hunt is on and they live in the sweet spot where these games mean everything for the next few weeks until it is over and they learn their fate.

For Sporting Kansas City, who have managed to fall out of contention for the Supporters’ Shield, there is little more than limbo awaiting them.  A late run of good form might find them challenge DC United for a spot at the top of the Eastern Conference, but realistically now, we are playing the remaining five games of the season in regular-season purgatory while the chase for home field advantage and the Supporters’ Shield unfolds around us.  After waiting two-thirds of the season for things to hit that point where Sporting make a run at the Shield, I find that the final third has comprised little more than a string of defeats, and us fans all going through the motions for a few more weeks until the playoffs get here.

Of course, the culprit is a playoff system in which half the teams in the league qualify for the playoffs.  I doubt we’ll ever see Major League Soccer get to a point where they are dialing this back, but the great hope is that as the league expands (Chivas USA aside), the number of playoff spots available does not grow with it. That, or maybe teams like the New England Revolution will become more attractive to followers of the game as they realize that having to fight to make it to the show is often more exciting than ambling through a season knowing nothing really begins until November.

The point is, I missed more in 4 minutes of cable outage with the Royals than I have in months of MLS Regular season as a Sporting Kansas City fan.  The margin for error, the tolerance for mediocrity in MLS setup makes the stroll in the park we are going through casual.  ‘Must win’ hasn’t arrived yet, and you have to wonder if beyond the talent on the field, the salary caps, the need to do well in regional competitions, if this lack of importance in any one game in the quest for the postseason is something that helps keeps fans away from games and from watching on TV.  It is certainly beginning to bother me.  I don’t feel like I have seen a truly big game at Sporting Park since the Cruz Azul game at the beginning of the season.

Part of the problem is Sporting’s inability to keep pace with the Sounders and Galaxy in the Supporters’ Shield race, I could counter that the Shield only exists because the original flawed format led fans to create it.  This format has improved, but not nearly enough.  MLS as a league is still not comfortable with teams being eliminated early presumably because of the threat of empty stadiums where fans opt out.  I get it, but this is Sport, and there are meant to be winners and losers, and if we are too scared to let teams fail on the field, then winning winds up means so much less.

It is a shame.

The experience of following a team throughout a season is meant to be more than this.