By Paul Gardner
The playoff system has its critics. I am not among them. I like the playoffs. I like them despite the fact that they have considerable drawbacks and that they can certainly be viewed as "not fair."
The critics, of course, believe that the MLS playoffs are unsatisfactory, but it is not always clear in what way they find them unsatisfactory. Undoubtedly, a large percentage of the critics are Eurosnobs who find the playoffs not to their liking simply because that is not the way things are done, or ever have been done, in Europe.
My opinion of the Eurosnobs is well known enough for me to cause no shock waves when I say that I shall ignore their protests, which I regard as fatuous. And maybe even anti-American.
To end a long -- and, let’s face it, sometimes tedious -- season with a burst of knockout activity involving the eight top teams leading up to a climactic gala-game makes a lot of sense to me. As it no doubt does to the TV companies.
The first thing to get right in the system, is to make sure that you do have the eight top teams -- and that is easy enough, you simply look at the eight teams with the top points totals.
That is what happened last season. So far so good. But there were some rather peculiar complications involved, and the MLS has now revised the format. Under the revised format we are not guaranteed to get the eight most worthy teams.
Last year the top two teams from the Eastern and Western conferences qualified automatically, to be joined by four wild-cards -- the four with the best points-totals. The problem (if it was a problem) arose because all four of those wild-card teams came from the Western Conference. So the playoffs took on a highly unbalanced format, with six Westerners and only two Easterners. Why that should be of great concern is unclear to me.
But we evidently have tidy minds at work within MLS and they duly noted that, for the second time in three years, chaos reigned -- geographically speaking. In 2008 the New York Red Bulls ended up as champions of the West, in 2009 Real Salt Lake won the East, and last year we got FC Dallas as the Eastern champions. Which, to me, is merely amusing, but it apparently sent spasms of horror convulsing through MLS nerves.
Had they asked me, which they didn’t, my solution would be to rename the conferences. We could have the David Beckham Conference, in honor of the league's highest-paid and least-productive player, and we could have the Paul Gardner division, in honor of me, because I thought of this nifty solution. Problem solved.
But MLS have chosen not to solve anything. By changing the rules to allow for 10 (instead of 8) playoff qualifiers, and to admit, automatically, the first three teams from the (still so-named) East and West, they reduce the chances of a geographical anomaly, but they do not remove the possibility entirely. At the same time they do increase the possibility of an unworthy team making the playoffs.
Had this new system been in place last year, the third automatic entry from the East would have been Kansas City -- with only 39 points. The admission of Kansas would have meant that San Jose (which had 46 points!) would have needed an extra play-in game to join the final eight (according to my calculations they would have played Colorado --the team that knocked them out last year anyway).
This rather byzantine new complication all stems from the dopey East-West divide. Just how artificial that is will be made quite clear this coming season. Portland and Vancouver are the new teams - and they are both cities with unassailable Western credentials. They will go into the Western Conference. Meaning that one team that last year was classified as Western, will now have to move East. It will be the Houston Dynamo. Frankly, I’d be very surprised to learn that coach Dominic Kinnear or any of his players give a damn about this shift -- after all, it’s only a paper shift, and this is a team that did, five years ago, make a real move when it transferred itself from San Jose.
So we’re going to have to accept that we may not, this year, get the eight best teams in the playoffs. I do not like that -- because it is unnecessary. But I do like all the rest of it -- the idea that we’ll get a concentrated series of 13 all-or-nothing games.
Well, five of the games will be like that -- the two play-in games between the four wild cards, the conference finals, and MLS Cup. I’m not so sure about the four conference semifinals, which are two-game series. There can be no argument that it is a good idea to provide each set of fans with a home game. The fly in the ointment is that a two-game series invites coaching to take a hand, and whenever that happens the chances are high that the games will be a bore.
A single knockout game leaves much less opportunity for the coaches to clog things up with their cleverness. Last year we got a prime example of coaching banalities in the awful Columbus vs. Colorado series. Fortunately, that was put to shame by the splendid games between Dallas and Real Salt Lake.
The final argument against the playoffs is that they make a mockery of the entire season. Yes, there’s something in that. But there’s a counter argument: that a “regular season” can often be decided before, even well before, the final games are played -- which means a fatally anti-climactic end of the season featuring meaningless games that interest no one. This would be particularly damaging in MLS, where there is no relegation battle that might maintain interest down at the bottom end. American sports are accustomed to ending their seasons with a climactic game or series.
Last year, we are told, the Galaxy were the most consistent team in the league throughout the seven-month slog, they deservedly won the Supporters Shield, so they should be champions. Yes, last year the Galaxy did get the most regular-season points. But ... they were a thoroughly boring team that didn’t deserve to be rated “best” at anything. It was good for the league, good for the sport -- not to mention the spectators - when they were ousted by the much livelier, much better FC Dallas.
After that, I’m afraid, my admiration of the playoff system collapsed for a while. Having got rid of one boring team, we then saw the whole shebang won by a much worse team, the deplorable Colorado Rapids, who managed to destroy that desirable climactic gala-game with their threadbare tactics. Sadly, there’s no system, with or without East or West conferences, with or without playoffs, that’s immune to the anti-soccer approach.