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MLS playoff system continues to come under spotlight as postseason unfolds

BeckhamHenry (Getty Images)

By AVI CREDITOR

The Los Angeles Galaxy won the Supporters' Shield, amassing the most points over the course of the MLS season, thus earning any and all advantages heading into the postseason.

Their reward: two cross-country trips in a four-day span for a two-legged tie against the only team in the league that can go head-to-head in a bare-knuckles payroll battle.

And while it's not in the Galaxy's control that it was the New York Red Bulls that captured the league's final playoff berth and won their wild card match Wednesday night to get placed in the Western Conference bracket, the fact remains that the ever-changing MLS playoff system is still very much a work in progress. The other Western Conference semifinal pits Seattle and Real Salt Lake, the second- and third-best teams in the league all season, against each other while five other teams with lower point totals duke it out elsewhere.

"No, I don't agree with the system, but I also accept what it is and recognize that I don't get to make those decisions, so we'll deal with it the best way we know how," Real Salt Lake manager Jason Kreis said on Wednesday.

In theory, Los Angeles is supposed to have the advantage by watching its next opponent have to play an extra game. In reality, that advantage is minimalized by the travel required on its part for the first leg in addition to the short rest in between a second cross-country trip back to the West Coast for the second leg.

Seattle and Salt Lake, meanwhile, might have been better off finishing fourth or fifth in the conference and falling to the wild card round, where the possibility of getting shifted to the Eastern Conference bracket — like where MLS Cup champion Colorado ended up last year and could again with a win over Columbus Thursday night — would make for a more advantageous playoff road.

"After the season that (the Sounders have) had, to turn around and have to play us as opposed to a wild card team is a poor place to be," Kreis said.

There's no simple solution as long as the league continues to maintain its stance on separate conference brackets. Unbalanced conferences happen from year-to-year in all sports, so uneven playoff roads are bound to be a casualty of the process. But when the integrity of a league's playoff system continues to get called into question season after season by pundits, coaches and players, it's a sign that more significant changes to that system may be necessary.  

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Do you think Los Angeles got a raw deal by having to travel cross-country for its conference semifinal series? What changes would you make to the playoff system? Do you agree with Kreis' comments?

Share your thoughts below. 

137 comments
  • Rory

    It’s customary for the team to get a handful of first class tickets on these non-chartered flights. Care to guess who gets to ride first class?

    Besides, it’s not like Donovan needs the leg room anyway.

    Like

  • Rory

    Oh this day just got better… the thread dedicated to Rossi just about completed my favorite thread topics list!

    Like

  • Rory

    And in Norway the title “National Champion” goes to the team that wins the FA Cup, not the full League season.

    Playoffs also in Argentina, I think.

    But if you want to tell Brazil that their version of Soccer is all wrong and we should follow the British model, then go right ahead…

    Like

  • RB

    Head-to-head is first, GD is second (so if still tied after head-to-head). They tied in Denver but the Rapids won in Houston (in that game where Hall blew it on Smith’s free kick from distance).

    Like

  • Mark

    MLS hasn’t had an Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference MLS Cup since 2007 (and even then, it was between 2 teams that are NOW both in the Eastern Conference). It would be nice if it finally occurred this year…so I’m rooting for New York to win the Western Conference and Colorado to win the Eastern Conference.

    Let’s see MLS try to explain that one to a casual fan!

    Like

  • WorldCitizen

    MLS’s playoff system is an unmitigated freakin’ disaster crossed with the worst joke in world history. There’s simply no better way to put it. How can anyone possibly have the least scrap of respect for a system where the worst sort of grinding mediocrity is rewarded with MLS Cup trophies and CONCACAF berths year after year? It’s not that playoffs themselves are the problem; it’s that MLS’s playoff system is deliberately rigged not to guarantee that the cream will rise, but to ensure that the league’s stinkiest turds will always float on top! For proof, look no further than the defending “champion” Colorado Crapids, or last night’s debacle in Dallas that saw yet another bowlfloater of a team (NYRB) that should’ve been flushed into the non-postseason sewer where they belong weeks ago eliminate a club that actually dares to try to play real soccer in this demolition-derby league with the sorriest style of play this side of a Saturday morning rec game! Seriously, is it any wonder that a sizeable majority of soccer fans in this country laugh their heads off at the very mention of MLS? The league’s TV ratings aren’t visible even with a microscope for good reason – those in charge are too clueless to figure out that you can’t sell fans on a turd sandwich just by calling it filet mignon!

    Like

  • Bryan

    Admittedly, didn’t read the entire thread here, but I think some people are missing the MLS’s side of this (not that I agree with it entirely). It’s not that the league thinks its fans care about conference championships, it is that the league thinks that fans care about geographic rivalries, which are in turn created (or, at least, helped along) by a conference system. Yanks-Sox. Mets-Braves/Philly. Giants-Dodgers. Any game between NFC East teams. Bears-Packers. Jets-Miami/Pats. Pittsburg-Ravens. Islanders-Rangers is a great example. Sure, it has a lot to do with geography, but it is more meaningful than, say, Mets-Yanks or Cubs-Sox because they play in the same conference. With conferences, the MLS wants to add juice to, say, RBNY-DC. I can’t fault them, entirely, for trying, but I agree that it can reach a point of absurdity when you’d just like to see the best teams in the playoffs.

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  • RB

    A collection of outrageous claims vying for the hyperbole crown, with several dashes of whining thrown in for good measure.

    Like

  • soccerhorn

    I think everyone knows what’s about to happen here. NYRB slept-walked through the season. Now they’re going to knock off the MLS most prized tv-commodity, the mighty LA Galaxy. Everyone sees it coming, but like a plane crash, all you can do is grit your teeth. Unfair to the Galaxy? Sure. But in the long run it’s the MLS shootng itself in the foot: for the short-term cash gain of a few extra playoff games, their ratings are going to wind up WAY net-negative thanks to LA’s early exit.

    Oh and let’s all bid a fond farewell to Bex, Keano, Landon, and probably Omar too. Europe awaits!

    Like

  • WorldCitizen

    OK, hyperbole yes. But whining? I think not. If I had any vested interest in any of the teams involved, it might qualify as whining, but I don’t; I just like skillful soccer, and Dallas just happens to be one of the very few MLS teams that actually try to play that way. However, it should be noted that I’ll never actually win the hyperbole crown; nobody can top “Mafia Don” Garber in that department, sparky!

    Like

  • WorldCitizen

    Let me guess: You’ve seen every installment of the MLS Cup playoffs from 2008 onward, haven’t you?

    Like

  • RB

    Whining. Sorry. The sentence that starts with “For proof”, for example. Or the part about trophies and berths. Your mileage may vary.

    I’m not a big fan of the playoff system either, and understand the idea of making it more just, not overly rewarding mediocrity, etc. It all boils down to what kind of system is desired. If you don’t want to risk playoff upsets, don’t have playoffs. The season ended last Sunday and LA won. It’s all a choice.

    But everybody knows the rules going in, so scare quotes are not needed or appropriate around anyone’s accomplishment when they win a cup, earn a berth, or whatever. They did the job as it was laid out better than other teams.

    Like

  • Adam M.

    LA gets to rest and NY takes flights half way across the country and back and plays a full pressure packed game on Wednesday night during which it loses a starter to a card and another comes out injured. Meanwhile, both LA and NY have to take that flight back to LA for the home return leg, so LA is ahead on both those counts also. The problem with the playoffs isn’t any of this–its that it makes no sense to pretend conferences matter if conferences don’t matter.

    Like

  • WorldCitizen

    Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one. Very well, then. Trust me – if you could’ve heard it spoken out loud, there would’ve been no doubt that it was b!tching, not whining!

    I’m fine with playoff upsets, BTW, but far from being an upset, it’s nothing more than dull low comedy when practically every game is a so-called “upset” (oh, and please do forgive the quotes; I know how they tend to offend your pristine sensibilities). And yes, “upsets” deserves mocking qualifier quotes just as richly as “champion” does when assigned to a steaming pile of clumsy oafs like the Crapids, because in MLS, micromanaged single-entity mediocrity is so ruthlessly and systematically enforced that upsets (notice the lack of quotes here) don’t really exist at all. It’s like saying that Stoke beating Wigan is an “upset.” Really? Why? Because one bunch of mediocre hacks finished a couple of places higher in the table than another bunch of (nearly identical) mediocre hacks? Puh-freaking-leeze!

    And needless to say, your assertion about doing the job as it was laid out speaks volumes about how Mafia Don and his moneyed overlords have redefined “doing the job” dramatically downward. It’s all so laughably absurd – win 4-5 games at the end of the season, which requires only dumb luck and maybe a little extra hustle, and you’re the “champion”! Not that we just need to hand it to the Supporter’s Shield winner, but playoffs can actually (gasp!) be made to reward good teams and give them some genuine advantage (unlike the moronic single-game format). See Grant Wahl’s latest for a decent proposal, if you haven’t already. For pissakes, at least make teams play 8 measly playoff games! At least that gives the cream some reasonable chance of rising on merit rather than tilting the table in favor of letting the turds float to the final on cynical, game-ruining tactics and pure dumb luck (which has become an annual ritual by now!).

    And for God’s sake, stop letting over half the friggin’ league into the playoffs in the first place! How can anyone take a league the least bit seriously when a team that won less than a third of its games has a strong shot at the title? You can bleat all you want about how “them’s the rules” or whatever, but the rules have turned the whole thing into a freakin’ clowns-only circus! If you’re OK with that, then you richly deserve the joke of an MLS that you currently have. Me, I’m holding out for something better. If Mafia Don and the myopic billionaires who serve as his enablers ever bother to pull their heads out and actually try to figure out why their TV ratings are in the sewer and most of their markets draw rather poorly at the gate, give me a shout. Otherwise, I’ll have no choice but to cave in and become that which I once hated: A Eurosnob!

    Like

  • Adam M.

    The Champions League and Copa Libertadores are playoffs. The World Cup is a playoff past the group stage. So are most domestic cup championships. I think the reason MLS needs the playoff is because the US Open Cup is so far under the radar that it simply doesn’t register for average sports fan. We want the spectacle of a final four/championship game, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is getting the system right so that the playoff appear “fair.”

    Like

  • Adam M.

    The Brasilian dmoestic championship is not a playoff, its single table. The league cup is a playoff, as are most.

    Like

  • Dimidri

    That’s a good point, though I think San Jose and New England are the only teams this really applies to. You could either have them get the right to host it at another, bigger stadium like San Jose did at Stanford for the fourth of July or give it to the second place team as a punishment to the former for not having an adequate venue, though that seems a bit anti the whole point of the change.

    Like

  • John

    16-Team World Cup Style Playoff. First part is group stage. Home games depend on how you did during regular season. The better you did, the more home games you get. Quit trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. People actually understand this format. You get the relegation lovers on board. You get more games. You get people invested in the characters and drama of the event.

    Like

  • Brent McD

    I love your point (d)

    Unconventional, but a great idea. Didn’t NASL used to do something like this?

    Like

  • Hahn

    Last year’s Seattle/NO game was an anomaly. The NFL system works great. MLS needs to learn from them to keep the integrity of the conferences. Keep the wild cards separate.

    And Supporters Shield winners/top seed remaining should host the final with no mid-week games.

    Like

  • Gazza

    A single table? So next year 36 regular season matches and in 10 years with a 24 team MLS 46 regular season matches? Are we playing games 12 months a year?

    Like

  • Gazza

    @WorldCitizen

    This is by far the worst comment/post I have ever read on any soccer blog in the history of the sport. And that includes when Tinfoil Ted was on BigSoccer and the current clowns commenting on MLS Talk.

    There are about 20 statements that are laughable but the part that takes the cake is Dallas losing an upset. FCD have been crap for 2 months. Toronto beat them 3-Nil at home with a CCL Quarter-Final berth on the line. NY is better than Dallas. Colorado is better than Columbus. Guess which teams won?

    Like

  • FuzzyDunlop

    True, but take a look at their post seasons and see how many of them have conference brackets.

    They all play some kind of balanced schedule + single bracket playoffs.

    Like

  • Neal

    NE has hosted MLS Cup on several occasions.
    Foxboro is certainly a big enough venue, although weather can be an issue (see 1996)

    Like

  • Michael

    This is the perfect format for when the league has an unbalanced schedule. If we have a balanced, 36-game schedule next year then I’d rather it just be a single table and the top 8 or 10 getting in, but if just the in-conference schedules are balanced, then this is the way to go.

    Like

  • Kevin

    My favorite part about the playoffs this year is how FC Dallas had to be a “wild card” team when they had a better record than the three “seeded” teams in the other conference. They all played a balanced schedule. Dallas did better than KC, Houston and Philly but they got to play the wild card game and lost while the three teams with worse records get a few extra days’ rest. Good job MLS!

    Like

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