By Ridge Mahoney
One more week remains in the regular season, and unlike past years, no playoff spots hang in the balance. The eight teams are ordained, matchups to be determined, and thoughts of revising the format yet again are being raised. The MLS playoff formula may not be "broken" as Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis proclaimed last week, but safe to say there will be intense discussions of revamping it when the Board of Governors meet during the week of MLS Cup 2010.
Six of the eight playoff teams come from the Western Conference, requiring two of them to be shifted into the Eastern half of the playoff bracket with Columbus and New York. If both of those Western teams win, the Eastern Conference would be blanked without a representative in the final four.
While there’s not much the league can do about a disparity of strength between the conferences, the whole concept of having a Western Conference team qualify for MLS Cup as the Eastern playoff champion, as RSL did last year, or having New York emerge as the Western Conference representative a la 2008, is getting archaic.
Last year, the top three teams in each conference qualified automatically, with the next two teams determined by overall points. Four teams went into the final weekend with a chance to snag the final spot, which eventually went to Western fifth-place finisher Real Salt Lake; RSL crossed over to the Eastern side and knocked off Columbus and Chicago before edging Los Angeles in MLS Cup.
This year, only the top two teams in each conference are guaranteed berths, and so dominant has been the Western Conference that it has snapped up all four wild-card slots. And it has done so by a staggering margin: sixth-place San Jose has seven more points (43) than the third-place team in the East, Kansas City (36).
The allure of a league title determined by conference playoff champion vs. conference playoff champion – which stems in part from the NFL bedrock of MLS ownership in the Hunt and Kraft families, as well as former NFL Europe executive Don Garber -- dissipates when one-half of the postseason places (four of eight) are determined by overall points, not conference finish.
(It took a while for certain outlets, including the Fox Soccer Report, to figure this out. As late as September, an announcer talked about Chicago moving up to fourth in the Eastern Conference and into the playoff tier. Uh, not correct.)
Firstly, let’s project what the playoffs could look like this season, using the current standings, and also compare them to how they would shape up if the eight participants were ranked one through eight and placed into brackets irrespective of conference affiliations. Note that much movement could still occur within the eight slots, so closely bunched are several teams.
No. 1 New York Red Bulls (48 points) vs. No. 4 San Jose Earthquakes (43 points, 6th in the West)
No. 2 Columbus Crew (47 points) vs. No. 3 Colorado Rapids (45 points, 5th in the West)
The league could face the embarrassing situation of no Eastern teams making it out of the first round, should the Red Bulls and Crew stumble against teams very close to them in the overall points standings. Not likely, but certainly possible. San Jose (two games remaining) might finish with more points than the Red Bulls. Yikes.
No. 1 Los Angeles Galaxy (56 points) vs. No. 4 Seattle Sounders (48).
No. 2 Real Salt Lake (55) vs. No. 3 FC Dallas (50).
From the much stronger Western Conference bracket only one team of four can advance to MLS Cup. By finishing lower, San Jose and Colorado play (Eastern) teams with weaker records than the teams Dallas and Seattle must play. Fourth-place Seattle is tied for fourth in overall points, with Eastern leader New York.
If the teams were re-ranked by points for playoff purposes, the brackets would look like this:
No. 1 Los Angeles vs. No. 8 San Jose (wow!);
No. 4 Seattle/New York vs. No. 5 Seattle/New York.
The winners of these series would meet for a spot in MLS Cup, as would the winners of:
No. 2 Real Salt Lake vs. No. 7 Colorado (again, wow!);
No. 3 FC Dallas vs. No. 6 Columbus.
A few points of note:
The actual matchups won’t be known until the season finishes Sunday, but regardless, the league should seriously consider junking the conference playoff setup altogether whether or not it retains the automatic places for the top two finishers in each conference. It can still award a trophy to the teams with the best regular-season records in each conference (as well as the Supporters’ Shield), and then hold off on the hardware until it presents MLS Cup to the playoff survivor.
Having so few Eastern teams in the playoffs complicates the playoff scheduling for television purposes. This year, MLS is overloaded with teams outside of the Eastern time zone: Seattle, Los Angeles, San Jose (Pacific); Real Salt Lake, Colorado (Mountain); and FC Dallas (Central). Another complication is that TeleFutura, which has been televising regular-season games on Saturday afternoons, will shift to Saturday night telecasts for the playoffs. New York has already announced it will host the second leg of its Eastern Conference semifinal Nov. 4 at Red Bull Arena in a Thursday night time slot for ESPN2, the Quakes will host a first leg Oct. 30.