At some point in the next few weeks, an Eastern Conference coach -- the one whose team is destined to finish sixth and thus miss the playoffs -- will lament the playoff format by which the top five
in each conference advance.
Whichever Eastern team takes the last slot in its conference, it will likely have a lot more points than the bottom seed in the West. In a reversal from past seasons, when West teams dominated the overall standings, several Eastern teams are performing better than their corresponding Western counterparts.
While overall points leader San Jose (60) is holding a significant margin at the top, the next four teams are all from the East: leader Sporting Kansas City (55), Chicago (53), New York (50) and D.C. United (50).
Tightly bunched behind that quartet are Western teams Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake, both with 49 points, and Seattle (48). Yet no Eastern team has clinched a playoff spot -- the Quakes, Galaxy and RSL are already in -- and that's because Houston (46) and Columbus (45), which are vying for fifth place in the East, have a lot more points than Vancouver (38) and FC Dallas (36), the remaining Western candidates to take the last berth.
The Whitecaps and FCD have virtually no chance of catching Seattle and so will decide the final slot between themselves. The Dynamo and Crew, on the other hand, can theoretically finish almost anywhere in the top tier though it's unlikely both of them will qualify.
When the league went to a 34-game schedule last year, it revised the playoff format by granting the top three teams in each conference automatic slots and using overall points to determine an additional four wild-card teams. As it turned out, the top five in each conference qualified anyway, though the fourth-place team in the West, FC Dallas, compiled more points (52) than Eastern Conference champion SKC (51). Western champion Los Angeles (67) and Seattle (63) were miles better than SKC.
Yet the fifth-place Rapids, with 49 points, topped Eastern counterpart New York (46) by only three points. So tight were the Eastern standings that only six points separated champion SKC and New York. In the West, the spread was significant: Colorado finished with 18 fewer points than the Galaxy.
It's likely that the fifth-place finisher in the West will again trail far behind the conference winner; as of now, San Jose is 22 and 24 points ahead, respectively, of Vancouver and FC Dallas. Whichever straggler gets in, it probably would have finished lower in the East, where seventh-place Montreal has 40 points and still has a slim chance to advance.
For the 2012 season, the league also loaded up the schedule with intra-conference games. Teams cross over into the other conference only once, whereas in past seasons each team played every other team at least twice. There will be more intra-conference games in the playoffs as well since no longer will teams cross over in the postseason, and the conference finals have been increased from one game to two.
So there's a lot for MLS to look at once the season is done: the effect of more "rivalry" games on scheduling, results, attendance, travel costs, and TV ratings; the timing and logistics of the intra-conference playoff format; and a second postseason including one-off, wild-card games.
(The knockout wild-card games must be a good idea. They work in the NFL, and have been adopted by Major League Baseball.)
There will also be the aftershocks of staging an MLS Cup hosted by the higher-seeded survivor on short notice. That could mean a CenturyLink Field sellout of 60,000, a return to 2011 venue Home Depot Center, a linkup with MLB in case the Quakes host at AT&T Park, or a potentially chilly experience at Red Bull Arena or Toyota Park or the Columbus Crew Stadium Still Lacking A Naming Rights Deal. The league could even wind up (gasp!) at crumbling RFK if United goes on a run.
However the 2012 season turns out, it will greatly affect MLS going forward. It has taken some risks, with the rewards yet to be determined.