Nobody in the MLS offices will admit it, but smallish crowds in the conference semifinals first legs are simply pawns in a grand plan.
By assuring every playoff team a home game, the MLS plan grants each team an extra dose of media coverage and playoff excitement, scant though it many be in a few cities. Had Colorado squeezed into the playoffs, it could have well matched the paltry 5,221 fans New England drew for its home leg Oct. 30 even had the Rapids played Saturday night.
Another facet of the playoff plan is giving the higher seed an extra week to sell tickets, whip up interest, entice the local print and broadcast media outlets to press conferences and training sessions, etc. Many observers and fans don't fully appreciate that factor. But in this league at this point in its development, a healthy playoff crowd isn't guaranteed.
A team moving into own cozy confines carries with it the responsibility to get out the faithful on short notice, which isn't an easy task for a league still struggling in many markets to get beyond a reliance on group sales and the youth crowd, both of which must be sold well in advance. In MLS, a home-field advantage is earned by the front office, too.
Fans and players watch the scoreboard. To team presidents, GMs, and ticket managers the count that counts are butts in the seats.
Recommending each team "save" one ticket in its season-ticket package in case it does reach the playoffs is something the MLS Board of Governors may discuss during the week of MLS Cup. Otherwise, you risk situations such as a successful team like the Revs - which drew 17,580 fans per game during the regular season and used up its "extra" season tickets on international matches - playing in a ghostly and nearly empty Gillette Stadium on a wintry Thursday night.
"Pre-sold" playoff tickets at least provide fans greater incentive to attend a midweek game, inconvenient though it may be. That factor should override accounting complications of an unused ticket that has to be refunded, or converted into a deposit for next season, or whatever.
Last week, the four lower seeds drew 41,903 fans, for an average of 10,476. Not good but not all that surprising, either. This week the onus is on men like Chivas USA president Shawn Hunter, who took over team operations more than a year ago. During the 2008 regular season Chivas USA drew 15,114 fans for its home games, less than the league average of 16,460. Can it match or top the announced crowd of 19,711 it drew for the 2007 conference semifinals second leg?
Last year, Houston drew 30,088 for its home game in the conference semifinals and while it won't match that number, it expects a crowd in excess of 20,000, though to fill the Telefutura broadcast window, and avoid a conflict with University of Houston football, it must play Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. local time. The Cougars play at home again next weekend, which means if Houston hosts the conference final it must play again on Sunday at Robertson Stadium or find another venue.
The four 2007 second legs at Robertson, RFK Stadium, Gillette Stadium, and Home Depot Center drew 79,353 fans (average: 19,838). The Revs finished dead last of the four homeys at 10,116 and no, they did not play in midweek.
Back to the present. Attendances at Columbus Crew Stadium have increased appreciably during the second half of the season as the team won the Supporters' Shield; now, what can it do in the playoffs?
Last year, general manager Mark McCullers cited the team's poor performance - three straight seasons without a playoff appearance - as a factor in its mediocre crowds. This week, the ball is on his side of the halfway line, especially with the Ohio State football team playing on the road in the afternoon. Averaging 14,622 fans per game planted the Crew nearly 2,000 fans behind the league average with the league's best team.
Chicago set the bar rather high by drawing a noisy crowd of 17,312 fans last night at Toyota Park, yet league officials should ask questions if any of the three weekend crowds don't match that figure.