This weekend is a vivid example of how radically things can change in MLS, and how changing playoff formats are affected by the fluctuating fortunes of teams.
EAST MEETS WEST. Houston and New England, combatants in the MLS Cup 2006 and 2007 finals, square off for the first time since they were split apart into different conferences. Houston, which won both of those encounters but hasn’t won a title since, moved back to the Western contingent for 2015 to make room for Eastern newcomers Orlando City and New York City.
From 2011 to 2014 they were Eastern Conference rivals, and twice the Dynamo reached the championship game, losing both times to the Galaxy. In their head-to-head meetings, Houston edged out a slight advantage by winning four, losing three, and tying three. The Revs are at home, where Houston has won twice in its history.
Last year, Houston missed the playoffs for only the second time since MLS moved the team to San Jose, for which head coach Dominic Kinnear departed to take over the Quakes; the Revs reached their first MLS Cup since 2007, and lost for a record fifth time.
Both teams are embroiled in scraps for a postseason spot. Kinnear was replaced by another Scotsman, Owen Coyle, who has ridden out a rocky start to his MLS tenure and last month got his first chance to field Erick "Cubo" Torres, who played on loan to Guadalajara until June. Coyle also acquired Sheanon Williams from Philadelphia during the trade/transfer period.
Houston is seventh in the West, a point out of the playoff tier but with a game in hand on Seattle; the Revs are fifth with a modest 8-9-7 record and three points clear of sixth-place Montreal, which has played three fewer games. This is also the last interconference game of the season for New England, which is 3-5-1 in matches against Western Conference teams.
FIVE YEARS LATER. The Rapids and Quakes played on Friday with neither looking anything close to the teams that vied for a spot in the 2010 MLS Cup final.
Under the playoff format in force at the time, both advanced to the championship game as Western Conference teams. In fact, they tied for the final playoff spot with 46 points, with the Rapids edging San Jose into the eighth and lowest slot by virtue of its superiority in head-to-head results. As the seventh and eighth seeds in the playoff field, they were shifted over to the Eastern Conference bracket for postseason play.
(Had the current tiebreaker, most wins, been in force at the time, the Quakes would have been placed seventh on its 13-12 advantage on that criteria, and the first-round playoff matchups would have been flipped. The wild-card round was added the following season when Portland and Vancouver increased league membership to 18 teams and the playoff field was expanded from eight to 10, five per conference.)
Much discussion in recent seasons has been the imbalance in quality between the conferences. Perceived superiority of the West is not new; in 2010, six of the eight playoff qualifiers were Western teams. Only New York and Columbus qualified from the East, and both were eliminated in the first round by, respectively, San Jose and Colorado, which then absurdly faced off in the Eastern Conference championship.
The Rapids won, 2-1, and in the MLS Cup final beat Western Conference champion FC Dallas, also by a 2-1 score, in extra time. The fortunes of both Colorado and San Jose have dipped since their 2010 playoff meeting. They have a combined three playoff appearances between them -- despite winning the Supporters Shield in 2012 San Jose lost in the Western Conference semifinals to the Galaxy -- and filled the bottom two spots in the Western Conference last year.
They are also the bottom two so far this year, and during the recently closed transfer window signed up significant newcomers. They can be accused of incompetence if the newcomers don’t work out, but not inaction. A playoff spot isn’t that far away for the Quakes (six points behind sixth-place Seattle with two games in hand); Colorado has eight points to make up with a game in hand.
PLAYOFF DEBATE CONTINUES. MLS absorbed a lot of ridicule and criticism for retaining conference designations for playoff games while also throwing together teams from different conferences, and in 2013 it reverted to an intra-conference playoff format which isn’t likely to change despite some critics contending using points, not conference placing, is a better way to determine the playoff field.
For 2015, MLS has added an extra playoff slot to each conference, and thus six of the 10 teams in each grouping advance to the playoffs. This necessitates two wild-card games in each conference, which means that a team finishing lower than second must play a knockout game. Previously, the top three teams advanced to the conference semifinals and were joined by the winner of a knockout match between the teams finishing fourth and fifth.
Despite expansion of the playoff field, the Quakes and Rapids are longshots to make the cut. The Revs, bolstered as they were last year by Jermaine Jones, are expected to earn a return to the postseason, and Houston has as good a chance as do several other teams to sneak into fifth or sixth place.
D.C. United and the Red Bulls seem to be the class of the East, and by joining Houston in the Western Conference Sporting Kansas City has further strengthened a Western Conference currently headed by Vancouver but in which FC Dallas and the Galaxy, which meet Saturday at Toyota Stadium, look like the toughest outs.
Yet Real Salt Lake, champion in 2009 and finalist two years ago, is struggling below the playoff tier. Seattle is mired in the worst morass of its seven MLS seasons: losses in five straight games and eight of the last nine. The Sounders hold the sixth spot, just one point ahead of Houston. Both RSL (which plays Portland) and Seattle (Orlando City) are at home this weekend for matches extremely important in their playoff quests. In past seasons, late-season home games for these teams were instrumental pieces of the playoff push. in 2015, they are crucial.
Also going head-to-head this weekend are the bottom feeders in the Eastern Conference: Philadelphia and Chicago have jockeyed between ninth and 10th place for more than a month and neither looks capable to mounting a serious playoff challenge despite adding influential players in recent weeks. Swiss midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta and Brazilian attacker Gilberto faced off Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal won by the Union, 1-0; a thigh contusion suffered by Gilberto forced him out of that game just 21 minutes into the match, but he’s not out of contention to play for the Fire on Sunday.
Fears that expanding the playoff field would diminish the intensity of regular-season game have gone unfounded. As the midseason flurry proves, more spots means more pressure to get one.