How to Survive the MLS Cup Final

Fellow MLS colleagues of the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew,

Congratulations. You’re still playing.

Your alarm clock is going to go off at the same time it’s gone off for the last 10 months.  You’re going to wake up and immediately look at your Instagram. You’ll scroll through tens, maybe hundreds of pictures. A lot of them will be photos of colleagues around the league who you compete against. They’ll be on a beach somewhere sipping a pina colada, or taking selfies on some cliff at a national park. They might even be at one of those villas that sits alone over the ocean in Bora Bora. It will be tough to see. You’ll be jealous.  

But remember, you’re the lucky one. The only reason they’re on a beach relaxing is because their season is already over. They don’t have a chance to win the MLS Cup. You do.

Next, you’ll take a look at your weather app (because you have to spend at least 10 minutes looking at your phone when you wake up, right?). It’s December. Unless you play in Los Angeles, the temperatures are probably in the 30s, maybe 40s on a good day. It will be hard to imagine going outside and trying to get your body warmed up for the 200th practice of the season.

In case you don’t know, soccer players are known for wearing “short shorts.” Not exactly ideal for keeping your muscles warm when you’re outside in December. But it’s okay. This is another reminder that the season has gone later than everyone else’s. You should feel fortunate. You’re still playing.

Speaking of your body, it’s going to hurt when you take your first couple steps out of bed. That’s normal. You might hear the words “toradol” and “hydrocodone” around the training room more frequently now that you’ve extended your season by a full month. Guys around you will be holding on — trying to piece together their fragile bodies for just a bit longer in order to get their shot at a championship.

Remember that hamstring issue you’ve been fighting off since the summer? It’s still there.  What about that rolled ankle you suffered a few weeks back? Yep, still there. Part of you wants nothing more than the season to be over with so you don’t have to fight through the pain anymore. You’re desperate for a month off to properly heal your body.

But pain is good. It’s a reminder of all the sacrifices you’ve made up until this point.  Trust me, you can push yourself a lot farther than you think, and you won’t even feel those injuries when you win the Cup. (Disclaimer: You will feel your injury if it’s an open wound during the champagne celebration. It stings like hell).

Once you arrive at practice, they’ll be plenty more instances to remind you that you’re still playing. Don’t feel like taping your ankles again? Think about the hundreds of players around the league who would love to get their ankles taped just once more.  

Don’t feel like taking that dreaded ice bath after practice? Think about your competitors who would gladly trade places with you.

What about the fans who show up to practice this week for autographs? It’s probably going to be the same people you’ve seen all year long. You’ve already signed 20 different items for them, and you won’t feel like doing it again. Just sign! Stay an extra five minutes. I once had a “regular” autograph guy that came to practice throughout the entire season, and during our last week, he said to me, “I can’t believe it’s almost over. This has been a special year for me. Thank you.” He had tears in eyes. That’s when you’ll be thankful your season isn’t over yet. You’re still playing.

Don’t forget about watching video. That’s something you’ll still have to do. And I doubt you’ll want to hear your coach talk anymore, because you already know exactly what he’s going to say. But think about all the teams around the league that are kicking themselves in the ass right now because they don’t get to listen to their coach one more week. They’re out and you’re not. You’re still playing.

Specifically preparing for the game itself is a whole different topic. There’s going to be a lot going on throughout the week. Everyone’s heard the stories about all the distractions.  Media, tickets, hotels, meals — the list goes on. More than likely, there will be that teammate who gets on social media and says something like “Portland fans smell” or “They don’t know where Columbus is on a map” and then it blows up into the biggest story leading up to the game. (Please, don’t be that teammate.)

Try and make the week as normal as possible. If you usually eat at Gorozzo’s Italian restaurant the night before a game, do it!  If you normally take a nap in the afternoon, do it!  Make time to prepare yourself the way you typically do.  

My college coach Bobby Clark always used to tell us before a big moment, “Play the game, not the occasion.” It’s a perfect quote for this situation. Don’t play the MLS Cup Final, play a soccer game. Play the same way you’ve played all season long. Do the same things that have gotten you to this point.

Thinking like this will help you relax and make something that seems overwhelming (winning a championship) very attainable. And if you do get nervous or stressed out, take a deep breath and remember that’s it’s okay. You’re still playing, man.

Also, this game isn’t about your friends, your family, or anyone else except you and your teammates. That might seem selfish, but it’s the truth.  

No one has put in the hours and commitment like the people in the your locker room. Your friends weren’t in preseason with you during two-a-days. Your family wasn’t stuck in a hotel room with you on the Fourth of July. How many weddings, birthdays, and holidays have you missed because you’ve been on the road grinding for this opportunity?

Think about how much work you and your teammates have put into this. Don’t let someone else get in the way of your ultimate goal at the last minute.

Finally, enjoy the moment! It’s going to be over a lot faster than you think. You never know when you’ll make it back to the Final, if ever. I promise you won’t remember as much as you think. So make a conscious effort to take mental screenshots throughout the experience.  

It’s OK to smile and be excited. You should be, because I’m sitting at home typing this, and you’re still playing.

Remember: Champagne stings.