Belief in playoff system again sorely tested

By Paul Gardner

It looks like a pretty good bet that, when this weekend is over, we shall find ourselves back where we were a year ago ... with an MLS Cup final between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo.

A state of affairs that some will, with reason, find automatically unacceptable. Simply because neither of those teams won its conference. Worse than that, neither team came anywhere near winning a title. The Galaxy was the fourth-place finisher in the west, 12 points behind the winner San Jose. Houston finished fifth in the East, 10 points behind winner Kansas City.
Which makes rather a travesty of the regular season, all 34 games of it, and is why the playoff system is controversial -- it just comes over as being inherently unfair. Against that you can set the facts that -- with the supposed home-field advantage -- Kansas City had its chance to oust Houston, and ditto for San Jose against Los Angeles. And both the lower ranked teams came out on top.
In fact, this season’s playoff scorelines seem designed to show the playoff set up in the worst possible light. I like the playoffs, but I’m going to find it mighty hard to defend a final in which a No. 4 team takes on a No. 5 team.  Come to that, should the unlikely happen, should D.C.United and Seattle somehow overcome the odds, we’d still have an ostensibly sub-par No. 2 vs No. 3 final.
But the reality is that once the play-off system is in place, these anomalies are likely to occur. There may, in fact, be a logic to them -- they simply mean, or should mean, that the teams advancing to the final are those that are currently playing the best soccer.
Which ought to mean that the playoffs ensure a good final between two in-form teams. Another slice of optimistic thinking that falls flat on its face. Because not only do the playoffs introduce the in-form factor -- i.e. they reward late-season success -- but they also introduce the relevance of the “playoff team.” That is, a team that seems to excel - maybe specialize is a better word -- when playoff games come around. A team that knows how to handle the two-game series, a team that can win at home and that is not daunted by the away games.
Which is where the worries about this year’s final start. Houston under Dominic Kinnear has proved over the years that it is better than anyone else at playing disciplined, no frills -- and largely no errors -- type soccer. A team that makes the most of its chances and defends with consistent intelligence to make sure that the opposition’s chances are kept to a minimum.
Of course, that is a formula that any team would embrace. Few do, with any persistence, because it requires rare patience and a disciplined devotion to the tactical side of the game. And it is a formula that does not make for the world’s most exciting soccer.
Last year’s final was a pretty drab affair. Maybe it would have been better had Houston’s Brad Davis not been benched by injury. Better -- but not by much. Houston does not come to play sparkling soccer. It is, it seems, a playoff team that gives us playoff soccer. And the essential ingredient of that is a smothering defensive presence all over the field, a high-work-rate hassling of opposing players who have the ball. Houston has perfected this and -- on the whole -- it manages to do it without the overt roughness that it might well entail. Though roughness -- by Andre Hainault -- was cynically and successfully used in last week’s game against D.C. United.
Houston 2012 doesn’t look that much different from 2011 -- or from the Houston teams that won MLS Cups in 2006 and 2007. Though the presence of Boniek Garcia on the current team does add something that Houston teams have generally lacked -- the possibility of something unusual, something individually brilliant, something ... well, sparkling.
Last year’s final finished 1-0 to the Galaxy. A familiar scoreline -- all three of the Galaxy’s MLS Cup titles have come from 1-0 wins, with two of the games going to overtime. A miserly scoring record that suggests the Galaxy is no more likely than the Dynamo to be looking to give us a barnburner.
But ... where the Dynamo has Garcia, the Galaxy has two players who just may be able to improve on the team’s pathetic scoring rate -- Robbie Keane and Mike Magee, both in fine goal-scoring form. And the Galaxy has, in Bruce Arena, a coach who has never been known as an advocate of cautious soccer.
I’m writing as though it’s a given that Houston and Los Angeles will meet in the final. Maybe not. Actually, I’d be far happier if we got the Seattle Sounders against D.C.United.
History has a lot to do with that preference. In its seven MLS Cup final appearances, the Galaxy has scored seven goals. One goal per game. Houston has been in three finals, and has scored three goals. One goal per game. Seattle has no final experience, but D.C., in its five finals, scored 10 times. Two goals per game.
If this year’s final is going to be another of those bleak occasions when the “defense wins championships” bores start their bleating, then my belief in the playoff system will be sorely tested. It has, let’s face it, delivered pitifully few memorable finals.

17 comments about "Belief in playoff system again sorely tested".
  1. Alvaro Bettucchi, November 17, 2012 at 1:39 a.m.

    No matter who plays in the final, the San Jose Earthquakes are (for me) the champions. After such a long season, they have proven to be the most consistant. In every country of the world (except the USA MLS) they are the champions. It's time to change this system or accept just the top two teams in each division. It's being done just for additional money the playoff brings in. It's crazy!

  2. Saverio Colantonio, November 17, 2012 at 1:47 a.m.

    I like the idea of playoffs where the team you support is not going to finish first in the league at least there is something to play for. Playing to make the playoffs is kind a like the Rome derby where neither team has much of a chance to win the Scudetto. However, the reality is that I haven't particularly enjoyed watching any of the playoff games. But I do love watching the derby game.

  3. Ray Shines, November 17, 2012 at 8:05 a.m.

    Except, Alvaro, that's not the case "in every country of the world (except the USA MLS)."

    You need only look south to Mexico to find another country with playoffs. And Australia has them, too. So, no, you're wrong.

    You can consider whomever you like to be the champions. But the Earthquakes aren't playing on December 1. Not because of the playoff system, but because they lost despite being "the most consistant (sic)."

  4. Charles O'Cain, November 17, 2012 at 9:03 a.m.

    When MLS "matures" as a league, there will be no playoffs for championship, which will be decided by points after a season of home-and-away matches. And there must be a relegation scheme to motivate the lower end of the league (and promotion for the top USL teams). MLS Cup can be contested by lottery draw among MLS teams, and the Open Cup can continue as is.

  5. soccer talk, November 17, 2012 at 9:55 a.m.

    I see your point Geezerdner. But what fan excitment is their in 1 and 2 playing one game for it all, or just settling for a season champion. We have (all be it large) 10 teams w/ devout fans watching their teams extend their seasons in hopes to make it to the final. Give the Quakes their due and annoint them the Shield, but a true champion must endure the playoffs and prove on the playoff pitch just why they finished on top. I could care less of a fairy tale season ending. If that were the case my Houston Texans could auto. book their Super Bowl ticket. Maybe if we did have a relegation system where lower teams did play for survival then things would be different, but I can assure the standings might be very different at season end. Teams endure the season to hopefully finish on top, but it is set as is to make the playoffs WHERE THE BEST TEAMS MOVE ON, decided on the pitch by earning it, especially the lower seeds. MLS will never duplicate EPL b/c it is a Americanized sport and I love it for better or worse. GO ORANGE. The really great teams are not summed up to a season, but to their tenure of succeses and how well they plaY. Kuddos to Dom. for this mastery how be it ugly defensive play, and not to the picturesque game Gard. so desires.
    GO ORANGE!!!

  6. Ted Westervelt, November 17, 2012 at 9:58 a.m.

    Playoffs in and of themselves are the least of MLS's problems, and I suspect Paul knows that. It's the chain of discount soccer outlets, the watered down regular season, and the imposed competitive balance, that produces an uncompelling playoff series that results in two lackluster regular season teams owned by the same guy competing for his cup.

    Credit AEG and Bruce Arena for figuring this all out. Bruce has been doing it this way since MLS was born. Remember DC United's slow start in their dynasty years? Remember Beckham's day off on his birthday? If you treat MLS regular season like a long pre-season, you can still come out with Phil Anschutz's Cup. (he owns that too)

    The problem in MLS isn't playoffs. It's phoniness. Perhaps our other dominant and isolated sports leagues can get away with this kind of stuff. It doesn't look good in the open global soccer market. Perhaps that contributes to why EPL is capturing the imagination of US supporters and the cash of US network TV, while MLS seems content to concede both.

  7. George Gorecki, November 17, 2012 at 9:59 a.m.

    Paul says that he likes playoffs, but can't defend a final where No. 4 plays No. 5. OK, so what would make a better playoff structure? If you're going to complain about the current set-up, please provide an alternative.

  8. Walt Pericciuoli, November 17, 2012 at 10:03 a.m.

    There has to be better reward for the team that finishes the regular season with the best record. They are the true Champions.If the MLS wants to create excitement and incentive for the teams having a poor season, have a League Cup competition and allow all teams to enter in a home and away format with away goals counting more as the tie breaker.Games to be played throughout the season and the final to be played at the end of the season.A teams then could compete for a triple. League Champions,League Cup Champions and Open Cup Champions.

  9. Ken Jamieson, November 18, 2012 at 12:56 a.m.

    Considering that a #1 seed has only won the Super Bowl once in the past eight years and both #1 seeds failed to make the Super Bowl in 5 of the last eight years indicates that MLS's playoff system is no worse that the NFL's. Other than MLB, which has a very limited playoff pool, upsets are very common in North American pro sports. There is only one way to guarantee that the top seeds meet in the final, limit playoff participation to the top seeds only.

  10. Lou vulovich, November 18, 2012 at 4:29 a.m.

    Paul, what you really want is some attacking exciting soccer, and the MLS is not ready to provide that. Sadly it is not close to understanding the entertainment concept, other then half time cheerleaders. You can beat your drums all you want but Pro soccer in the USA will look more like soccer made in NORWAY than SPAIN or BRAZIL, anytime soon.

  11. R2 Dad, November 18, 2012 at 3:45 p.m.

    Given the lack of urgency on the part of these mid-table teams, the conference leaders should play a final.

  12. Kent James, November 19, 2012 at 6:38 p.m.

    Ideally, you have promotion/relegation to make the bottom of the table interesting, but until the 2nd tier teams all have stadiums and decent fan bases, so that promotion/relegation would not be the kiss of death, that won't happen (but someday it will...). To make the regular season meaningful, limit the number of playoff spots; each conference champion, then the next two teams with the most points (4 teams total). Home & home series, then one game final.

  13. Daniel Clifton, November 19, 2012 at 6:59 p.m.

    It is an American tradition that our pro teams end the season with a playoff to determine the champion. Get over it Paul. Defense is a part of soccer. It is a defensive sport. I like attacking soccer but I remember coaching teams where I could really appreciate a good defensive performance.

  14. tom brown, November 20, 2012 at 5:15 a.m.

    The main problem is the referee bailed out the Galaxy which for 60 min. looked like sure losers. As bogus a handball as has ever been seen whereby the referee handed the Galaxy a final at home when Seattle looked like winners. Absolutely terrible fixing by MLS. Fans are not stupid suckers... wrong! You are the stupidest suckers (according to Don Garber). He needs to resign.

  15. Bill Anderson, November 20, 2012 at 3:27 p.m.

    1) Single Table home and home season, with the winner crowned league champions (Supporters Shield). The season ends around Halloween 2) Lamar Hunt US Open Cup with the final on Thursday or Friday of Thanksgiving. 3) CONCACAF Champions League season continues into the late spring. 4) Season opening Cup with previous Supporters Shield vs Lamar Hunt Cup winners playing one game.

  16. Kent James, November 20, 2012 at 9:12 p.m.

    Bill, good idea. Maybe the top 4 teams from the MLS get a bye to the round of 8. The other four teams are the culmination of the regular open cup process, with the remainder of the MLS teams either doing a playoff for 2 of the four spots, or just entering in the latest round they can while still playing non-MLS competition (maybe some of the excitement of relegation battles can be generated by eliminating the bottom 4 MLS teams from the open cup, which would also serve to shorten the tournament). The problem is that currently the Supporters Shield winner gets very little recognition (because the MLS Cup winner is recognized as the champion), as does the open cup winner (I think because the open cup is played during the season and often teams play their subs). If you had a league winner, and then a post regular season Open cup tournament that lasted a few weeks, you could make the league winner significant (since they would be the league winner, and considered the champion) as well as possibly getting a playoff atmosphere for the open cup. The open cup would be single elimination with a predetermined location for the final (somewhere the weather would be okay this time of year).

  17. James Madison, November 22, 2012 at 9:42 p.m.

    I confess to being surprised by Houston, but I predicted a couple of months ago that LA, which came on relatively strong in the second half of the season, would be in the MLS Cup.

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