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The Power Of Parity
by Ridge Mahoney, October 10th, 2007 12:15PM

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With the Red Bulls and FC Dallas assured of playoff participation, and five teams - theoretically - still in the hunt for the remaining two spots, will the eighth-place team set a record for the poorest mark ever to qualify?

No. Not even close. If the Galaxy does win its last three games and sneak in at 11-13-6, it will actually better the marks of several bottom-feeders in the 10-team and 12-team shootout seasons of MLS.

If Chicago loses its last two games and still gets into the playoffs at 9-12-9 (36 points), it would be three games under .500, which is less than mediocre but still not rock-bottom.

Because the number of games played by each team in a particular season varies, and the league used the shootout to decide tied games in its first four seasons, comparing records from different seasons isn't a straightforward process.

There are also seasons in which the teams were split into three divisions rather than two conferences, and also years that the total-points formula - which is being used this season -- determined playoff qualifiers rather than the eight slots going to the top four in each conference.

In several seasons, eight of 10 teams qualified for the playoffs, a scenario that virtually guaranteed that at least one team with a lousy record gets in.

Let's start with the inaugural 1996 season.

Three teams - San Jose, the MetroStars and Columbus - finished with 15-17 records, and because of differing success in the shootout, compiled 39, 39, and 37 points, respectively. All three made the playoffs. The MLS Cup champion, D.C. United, finished 16-16 during the regular season.

The 1997 Rapids went 14-18 (38 points) to finish fourth in the five-team Western Division and buzzed through the playoffs to reach MLS Cup, in which they fell to D.C. United, 2-1. Yet Miami set the low-water mark in 1999 by posting a 13-19 record (29 points!) that was good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. That same season, San Jose finished fifth in the West at 19-13 (37 points) and stayed home.

In 2004, New England eked out Chicago in a tiebreaker to finish fourth in the East at 8-13-9, yet knocked out first-place Columbus (12-5-13) in the first round.

Two years ago, for the first time, all eight playoff qualifiers finished at .500 or better, but when the Galaxy -- with the ninth-best overall record at 13-13-6 -- knocked off top seed San Jose (18-4-10) in the playoffs and went on to win the title, well, howls of anguish were heard throughout the land. Left out was fifth-place Kansas City in the East at 11-9-12.

People forget that both Los Angeles and Kansas City compiled 45 points, and third-place Colorado also finished 13-13-6.

Last year, two sub.-500 teams - New York (9-11-12) and Colorado (11-13-6) - reached the postseason, and two teams four games under .500 - Kansas City (10-14-8) and Los Angeles (11-15-6) -- fell just short: one point, and two points, respectively.

Odds that a team below .500 can reach the playoffs drop as more teams join the league. MLS has yet to announce if it will again use total points to determine playoff places when San Jose joins the league next year or take the top four in each of two seven-team conferences.

The single table is discussed, and rejected, every year by the Board of Governors, so don't count on it.



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