The first good thing about the MLS playoffs was that the Colorado Rapids didn't qualify. I say that intending no disrespect for their players, but as a harsh criticism of the style and tactics
adopted by their interim coach Gary Smith -- the dreaded survival soccer
that I excoriated here a couple of weeks back.
It was a close call --
only a last-gasp goal from Real Salt Lake's Yura Movsisyan meant that the Rapids' survival soccer led not to their survival but to their extinction. The Rapids' top brass now have time to
ponder that failure, and to think about getting themselves a proper coach to replace Smith -- the man who won't have the talented Christian Gomez in his line up. Way to go, Gary.
Having escaped the banalities of survival soccer, MLS now has to face up to the rigors of playoff soccer. To get one contentious point out of the way: one tires of listening to the critics of the
playoff system -- usually they are of the Euro-snob persuasion, often Brits. The Brits don't use it, so it can't be any good is as far as their ideas take them. The system, for sure, has its
faults -- but it seems to me that it's the right one. Right for this country, which is used to playoffs in sport, and treasures the big-event finale, and right for the structure of MLS -- which,
unlike the British and other leagues, has no relegation battle going on at the bottom end of the standings.
Thus, without the playoffs, the only MLS prize to be played for would be
finishing top of the regular-season standings -- and that could be decided weeks before the end of the season, leaving a whole bunch of limp, meaningless games to be played. Is that really preferable
to the situation this season, when the playoff race involved almost all of the league's 14 teams? A situation that meant that meaningful games were being played right up until the very last game
of the regular season.
Yes, the playoffs are, in a sense, a new season. But the best teams from the regular season do get an advantage, as they get to play the weakest teams. Though even
that might not always work out quite as planned. Never mind, nothing does. Though it might be planned better.
What I'm not at all sure about with the playoffs is the home-and-home
series pattern. There cannot be the slightest doubt that a single winner-takes-all knockout game would make for a much more exciting and dramatic event.
And excitement is what the
playoffs should be full of. Under the present system, that cannot be guaranteed. Given the defensive tilt of the modern game, it is almost a given that the away team in the first leg of the two-game
series (and, remember, the away team is the higher-seeded team) will play cautiously. I don't mean negatively (well, not too
negatively) but the team will be more than happy to go home
with a tie. This is not a recipe for sparkling soccer. It is going to be difficult for the home team (the lower seed, the inferior team if you like) to break down a play-it-tight defense.
We saw that in this past weekend's quarterfinals. Four games, only five goals, with no team scoring more than one goal. The home teams scored three of those five goals. Those stats don't
need much interpreting. Scoring chances were at a premium, goals inevitably hard to come by -- meaning that excitement, too, was not lavishly on tap.
Looking at those games: the New
England vs. Chicago game was pretty poor, but -- beyond the structural deficiencies pointed out above -- New England had the excuse of having to use a makeshift lineup, because of injuries and
suspensions. The score, 0-0, pretty much reflected the soccer content of the game -- zero.
The Red Bulls had the same problem, injuries and suspensions, but managed to give Houston quite
a fright with some intermittently lively attacking play. So we got a couple of goals -- including a beauty from Juan Pablo Angel, a masterclass in the sly, quick, last-second movement of a genuine
penalty-area player, and the beauty of a lightning quick header.
A different type of headed goal -- but every bit as exciting -- came from Davy Arnaud of Kansas City, as he raced forward,
and launched himself to meet a perfect cross from Claudio Lopez and send the ball with emphatic power into the net.
RSL's goal -- from that man Movsisyan again (the man who saved us
from the Rapids!) -- was a beauty, a flick of his heel, and a crafty deflection that gave us a second or so of tremendous breath-stopping suspense as the ball rolled toward the goal and over the goal
line. This was the best of the four games, with the biggest and noisiest crowd. It was also the closest to the scenario I outlined above -- a cautious Chivas (three shots, only one on goal), and a
continually attacking Real -- rewarded only at the last moment with a 90th minute goal.
In Kansas City, play was more even, with Kansas nearly pulling off a famous win with Arnaud's
goal. But Columbus, once it trailed, reacted as Houston had in New York -- by abandoning caution and going for goal. Both teams were rewarded with late goals -- Houston's equalizer came in the
85th minute, Columbus' in the 92nd.
So we go to the return games, with three of the four favored teams well placed to advance. Chivas is the exception -- they face a goal deficit and
a feisty Real team that played some pretty good soccer in the first leg.
For my taste, there was not enough skillful attacking soccer in these games, too much caution. Yes, a single game,
played on the field of the higher-seeded team (they get the home-field advantage) would give much livelier games. Against that idea is the fact that you're taking a possibly exciting home game
away from the lower-seeded team. And that is not a good idea. Probably we're stuck with the two-game series. What's needed is a way to ensure that those first games are