The Major League Soccer playoff system is often criticized, regularly tinkered with, and potentially prone to further change as more teams enter the league. However, for all its flaws, the format does at least seem to have brought the best out of one of MLS's highest-profile players – Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls.
Angel may not understand the playoffs or the inherently American need for their existence, but he accepts that they have assisted him in shrugging off the inconsistency that has pockmarked much of his career.
Part of the reason for his impressive exploits in MLS is because he is playing against lower quality opposition than he was during his six-year stint with Aston Villa in the English Premier League. Even at the age of 33, though, Angel has an extra spring in his step and a level of enthusiasm that was missing for long periods at Villa.
"For me, the playoffs are a difficult thing to understand," Angel told the New York Times. "Of course, I respect the rules of the league, but this year the Columbus Crew was the best team in the league for the whole year and no one knows what's going to happen.
"They might not win a championship. It's strange, but that's the way it is and you have to adjust, although I might not agree."
It is pretty hard to play your way out of contention in MLS, where even the worst teams in the league stay in the playoff hunt until the closing weeks. New York's involvement in the postseason the past two seasons has kept Angel's senses sharpened, right to the end of the campaign.
Too often in England, the Colombian would struggle to find sufficient motivation when there was nothing on the line. In North America, he has enjoyed being involved in meaningful matches at the business end of the season, especially this year, with the Red Bulls ousting defending champion Houston Dynamo to reach the conference finals and Saturday's showdown with Real Salt Lake in Utah.
For much of his career with Villa, the club operated in something of a no-man's land, rarely in any danger of relegation but never looking capable of cracking the top four. Angel showed periodic bursts of form in England that saw him perform at a level as high as the very finest strikers in the Premier League. However, interspersed were long and frustrating barren spells that infuriated his coaches and Villa fans, who brought up the $16 million price paid for him in 2001.
Angel's best Premiership season was in 2003-04, the final year of his initial contract. A prolific scoring run netted him 23 goals and for a time in the middle of the campaign, he was one of the hottest strikers in Europe. Once a new deal was inked over the following summer, though, productivity dipped – and Angel managed only 19 goals in his final three seasons at the club.
Many Villa fans were aggrieved, feeling his interest waned once the new contract was sealed. More likely factors in his drop in performance were annoyance at the club's on-field struggles and a personality clash with former boss David O'Leary. Either way, life in New York has re-energized Angel, especially working under fellow Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio this season.
"It has not always been easy and we have had to adjust," Angel said. "But we always knew if we could put some good results together we could get into the playoffs and keep our season alive.
"Now we have a chance to go further and we have learned to believe in our ability to compete with any team in the league."
His performances have led to calls for a return to the national team in his homeland. Angel's former club, Argentinean giant River Plate, is also reportedly interested in bringing him back after a gap of eight years.
But for now, Angel appears content where he is. He has found consistency, productivity and now has his eye on a championship that would break a long silverware drought for both himself and the Red Bulls.
- New York Red Bulls
- Major League Soccer
- Aston Villa