By Ridge Mahoney
The shuttling of Houston from the Western Conference to the East doesn't appear terribly significant at first glance, at least to those fans and observers not looking one step ahead.
A balanced schedule will match up Houston twice, once at home and once away, with each of the 17 league opponents irrespective of conference affiliation, so there's a sense in certain circles that the move doesn't mean that much. One look back at the gross imbalance between the conferences last year should clear up that muddled view.
Note that Colorado and San Jose finished tied with 46 points and were placed fifth and sixth, respectively, via tiebreakers in the Western Conference.
Over in the East, Kansas City finished third – and ninth of the 16 teams overall – with 39 points, seven points behind the lowest playoff qualifiers and 11 points back of conference runner-up Columbus.
MLS has announced it will expand the playoff field from eight to 10 teams this season, but has yet to confirm how those 10 teams will be determined. If it increases the importance of conference finish, rather than overall points, Houston could be much better off in the East.
Critics of expanding the playoff field attest that: a) more playoff teams plus more games dilutes the importance of regular-season games, and b) letting weaker teams into the postseason devalues it.
The seven-point gap between No. 8 and No. 9 last season supports both arguments, but 2010 may prove to be an aberration. In recent seasons the gap between the lowest seeds and the near-misses has been very slim.
In 2009, three teams finished with 40 points; only one of them got into the playoffs, and that team -- RSL (11-12-7) -- won the title. Two more teams, Toronto and FC Dallas, were just a point back at 39.
In 2008, No. 8 seed – and MLS Cup finalist – New York (10-11-9) ended up with 39 points; right behind were Colorado (38), D.C. United (37), and FCD (36).
The 2007 bottom seeds, Chicago and Kansas City, were just three points better than Columbus (40 to 37). Where’s the steep drop-off?
Those tight races counter the argument that two more playoff spots will devalue the postseason to any significant extent. Last year, San Jose finished three games above .500 (13-10-7) as the eighth overall seed. When was the last time a team with that good a record wound up in the bottom spot? Never.
As stated, the 2010 season could be an aberration, or it could be the start of an expanding, not narrowing, of the gap between the top and bottom teams. With more games, more “bubble” teams will stay in contention longer – but only by garnering points -- and that should increase, not reduce, the importance of matches. The bad teams will be four games worse, the good teams four games better, and the middle teams will tested more severely. That works for me.
The league can avoid a lot of embarrassment by quietly dropping references to conferences during the playoffs, but it is still mired in vestiges of its NFL-driven early days, and stubbornly adheres to conference winners meeting in MLS Cup, even though in the past three seasons teams from the same conference have contested the championship. Not good.
For the past three seasons, at least one team has “crossed over” into the other conference for the postseason. In each season, a crossover team “won” that side of the bracket.
In 2008, New York finished fifth in the East and knocked off Houston and Real Salt Lake to reach MLS Cup against Eastern rival Columbus, to which it lost, 3-1. RSL reversed the scenario in 2009 when topped the Crew and Fire to “win” the “East” and then dispatched Western foe Los Angeles in the final.
Last year, ouch, both San Jose and Colorado not only crossed over but knocked off the Red Bulls and Crew, respectively, to contest the Eastern Conference final, which the Rapids won. Believe me, much of the coverage included consternation and confusion about Western teams playing for the Eastern title. It’s just not worth it, is it?
The Rapids won their first MLS Cup against another Western rival, FC Dallas. As was observed at time, the only Eastern Conference presence at the final was the host team, Toronto FC. Is replacing “conference winners” with “MLS Cup finalists” such a big deal?
Getting back to Houston, on the basis of last year’s evidence, despite its poor record and failure to make the playoffs in 2010, it is moving into a weaker conference. The Dynamo must improve considerably, since it managed only 33 points last year, fewer than Chicago (36) and Toronto (35) as well as Kansas City. But only if the league awards playoff spots by conference placing rather than overall points could the Dynamo have an easier road to the postseason.
If the league allots three or four spots in each conference by placing and uses overall points to determine the others, it can expect more ridicule regarding cross-over teams unless it avoids conference references altogether in the playoffs. And that’s what it should do. I still like a team finishing high enough in its conference earning an automatic spot; those games should mean more, and they do in this setup.
There’s nothing wrong with awarding conference titles to the regular-season top finishers, with one of them also earning the Supporters’ Shield, and then drawing up the playoff bracket as follows: Play-in (or first) round, quarterfinals, semifinals, MLS Cup. Once the playoffs start and the contestants are known, that’s all that matters, not their conference affiliation.