Playoff Soccer: More Pros than Cons

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 exciting. Any suggestions?


6 comments about "Playoff Soccer: More Pros than Cons ".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, November 3, 2008 at 9:30 a.m.

    Widen the goals, abolish offside, play seven-a-side, lock Steve Nicol in a secure cell for the duration of the playoffs. Have cheerleaders run across the field every time there's a tactical foul, and have the refs sing a number from South Pacific every time the Jumbotron shows they screwed up. Have Wynton Marsalis play his anarcho-warped version of the Star-Spangled Banner before the game. Start the games at the 80th. minute mark. The possibilities are endless.

    I'm no fan of the playoffs (purely because, as Paul points out, I'm a Brit) and the MLS Cup final is a beanfeast for sponsors and administrators rather than a showcase soccer game. But if we have to have a second season (and it seems we do) because the first season's not good enough, then he's right, a single game should confer a genuine home advantage. But then one team would moan that it got no home game, despite the fact less fans tend to come to playoff games than regular season games. In that case, return to the old three-game system.

    But the playoffs skew the season in favor of teams running into late form, and messes with the development of the league. Short term, it makes for an apparently exciting season's end. In the long term it's bad for the U.S. game - few teams beside Houston and New England build a roster aimed at doing more than scrambling into the playoffs, making for too many mediocre teams in an average league. Parity's been good to help build a stable base for MLS, but it's time for soccer here to think about abandoning the U.S. sporting model.

  2. , November 3, 2008 at 10:37 a.m.

    "What’s needed is a way to ensure that those first games are exciting. Any suggestions?"
    How about the "away goal rule"?
    It will insure the visiting team some extra reward for attacking.

    I agree with the current playoff system for now. The reason for that is the MLS schedule. The fact that no break during international games and the participation in CONCACAF tournaments put some teams at disadvantage during the regular season games. I don't think Columbus is much better than Houston but they benefited from easier schedule and reduced call-ups for internamtional duty.
    The playoff system is here to insure justice and fair game.

  3. Michael Polonski, November 3, 2008 at 11:58 a.m.

    As a traditionalist, I have always dreamt of the day when MLS will have a single-table competition format with promotion and relegation and NO playoffs. What I am starting to realize after 13 years of following the league is that evolution is occuring in the right direction and, at the current stage of that evolution, promotion and relegation would not work and playoffs are a viable and sometimes exciting alternative. My primary complaint about the playoffs is similar to most others; that a mediocre team can get hot at the end of the season and end up winning the "title" thus reducing the importance of the regular season (LA Galaxy '05). I have also advocated that regular season excellence be greatly rewarded come playoff time and I do not believe that the current two-leg format in the conference semifinals does that. Parity and all-out defensive postures, like Paul said, bring too much luck into the equation. I would scrap the two-leg format and go with one-game-winner-take-all at the venue of the team who finished with more regular-season points. In the event of a tie, the home team would advance, a la the Mexican league playoffs. Finally, as the league expands, keep the number of teams making the playoffs to eight to keep the regular season meaningful.

  4. Alvaro Bettucchi, November 3, 2008 at 1:55 p.m.


  5. Stephen Bailey, November 3, 2008 at 4:43 p.m.

    Away goals rule does not provide enough incentive for the away team to attack in the first game in the home-home series. However, that rule could be combined with other incentives for goal-scoring.

    In the first game of a home-home playoff series, award each team 1.5 goals for the first 2 goals scored.

    Or, award a 1 goal bonus goal to either team if they score at least 2 goals in the game.

  6. Stephen Bailey, November 3, 2008 at 4:48 p.m.

    Another thought in case my suggestions of bonus goals is too over the top for some (many?):

    Make the playoffs a 2-game series. It is the higher team's choice as to whether they wish to play the first game at home or away. (No change from today.)

    Make the site of the 2nd game conditional. If there is a winner of the 1st game, they earn the choice of venue. Obviously, they would choose to play at home. If the 1st game ends in a draw, then the away team in the 1st game hosts the 2nd game.

    This change would result in the higher seed selecting to play at home for the 1st game and it would guarantee that both teams would be motivated to attack and win the game.

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