The big brother and the red-headed stepchild

AEG once had lots of soccer children. While taking care of MLS more than the Krafts or the Hunts, Philip Anschutz fed his soccer children, kept them alive in hard times, and sunk more money into them than a typical parent wastes on the college tuition of several children. Then as MLS grew stronger, and certain teams became profitable, AEG started selling them off.

So slowly, the children of AEG moved off into the world (mostly between 2006 and 2007). Currently AEG has two teams remaining, and they will meet in Los Angeles on Sunday to battle for MLS Cup. Indeed Philip Anschutz will get to hold an MLS Cup –which incidentally is named the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy– Sunday night no matter who wins. This has many league critics calling foul, but while the two teams battling out for MLS supremacy have the same owner they are nothing alike.

Several story lines are permeating through the soccer media about Sunday’s MLS Cup Final between the Anschutz teams. None of these stories are truer than the story of the of two teams, owned by one man, with two vastly different philosophies.

LA is the big brother. People look upon them as not just AEG’s favorites but MLS’s too. Houston is seen as the ginger child from the second marriage. The kid that grew up down the street from LA (in San Jose) before coming into their own after moving.

The analogy seems to hold. LA has been playing in their very own soccer specific stadium since 2003. Houston will finally get their own soccer specific stadium for the 2012 season –almost a decade later. LA is a team that has always had stars (Cobi Jones, Landon Donovan, Carlos Ruiz, et al). Houston has always been the place for the hard workers who are the typical type of MLS players. The Designated Player Rules, which is pejoratively known as the David Beckham Rule, was created for LA. David Beckham, Donovan, Juan Pablo Angel, Robbie Keane have all played for LA under this rule; meanwhile, the only foray that Houston took into high paid players was Luis Ángel Landín –the only Designated Player to ever be straight out cut from a team.

Yet regardless of the difference in how we view AEG’s two franchises, and outside of DC United, they are probably the two most successful franchises in MLS history. LA has won the MLS Cup twice as has Houston. But Los Angeles has not won that trophy, despite success in other competitions, since 2005; that is two full seasons before David Beckham made his debut for them. In fact no MLS team has ever won an MLS Cup while featuring a Designated Player, or two, or –as in the case of LA– three. There in lies the true story of this MLS Cup.

Forget for a moment that these two teams have the same owner and remember that the business models are vastly different. Houston is sitting just $800,000 and change over the salary cap. If Houston wins MLS Cup on Sunday, it will be proclaimed as a win for the little guy, but Houston does have its own type of stars. Brian Ching is, if there was such a thing, an MLS Hall-of-Famer. Brad Davis was an MVP candidate and probably should have won. Geoff Cameron has a future on the USMNT. Tally Hall has proven to be an absolute monster between the posts, and he has, perhaps, been the best player in this MLS postseason. So it is not like Houston is paying money for…I don’t know…the New England Revolution’s roster.

Meanwhile Los Angeles has three players making salaries close to, or more than, the entire Houston roster. In addition to those three the team features an array of skilled role players.  There is MLS cult-hero Mike Magee –three goals in three games. The best backline in MLS, which features two likely USMNT players in Sean Franklin and Omar Gonzalez, helping out two international quality goalkeepers (Donovan Ricketts, Jamaica and Josh Saunders, Puerto Rico). And a Brazilian player in Juninho who probably could be a DP for the majority of teams in the league. So they bought the three big stars, because this is LA and LA is the land of stars. Yet they still smartly spent the rest of their salary on decent, good, and great players. This proves that AEG can put together two teams, in two different markets, in two completely different ways.

However, if LA loses, it will not be looked at as a team that was wisely built that fell to another brilliantly crafted team. Rather it will be marked down as further proof, following the Red Bull collapse this season, that DPs do not equal trophies (except for the Emirates Cup). Nevertheless, when looking at the teams in the MLS Cup Semi Finals (it is not a Conference Final!) only Houston had no DPs. In fact of the ten teams that made MLS’s playoffs, only three rosters (Houston, Philadelphia, and Colorado) did not have a single Designated Player.

Still we sit on what could be the precipice of MLS history. If a team consisting of three DPs –including the grandfather of DPs in Beckham– finally breaks through and beats their sister team for MLS Cup –which would not coincidentally an overlooked, and realistic, shot at a treble– there could be an overhaul in roster selections.

Do I expect teams in Colorado and New England to follow an LA win by going out and signing Ronaldinho, Rio Ferdinand, Didier Drogba, Robinho, and Nicolas Anelka? No more than I expect LA or New York to drop their big name stars for low-cost-high-output players if Houston wins. Still, Houston and LA is a culture clash despite having the same owner. In fact it is the owner clashing with himself over two ways of building an MLS team, both of which seem to be working.

Regardless of a DP lifting MLS Cup for the first time, or a group of “blue collar workers” –as people are labeling Houston– doing it, AEG has shown that they can build winners in MLS’s restrictive league. And when the confetti falls on Sunday, it will be curious to see if anything changes in a league where we’re starting to want stars.

Will a Houston victory keep MLS’s overlooked happy, or will an LA victory remind them that time has passed them by. Either way change is coming ever so slowly, even if it’s business as usual for the one owner who is using both the new and old business models for a one-hundred percent shot at success.

And a sure thing should be applauded no matter how one gets there.


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