By Ridge Mahoney
Since there will be twice as many MLS wild-card games as in past seasons, get ready for complaints to be twice as loud.
Expansion of the playoff fields in each conference from five teams to six necessitates the addition of an extra wild-card game, so a few days after the regular season concludes, there will be matchups of No. 6 at No. 3 and No. 5 at No. 4. Only the top two teams in each conference, compared to three in previous years, will avoid the knockout round.
Not only does this present twice as many opportunities for low crowds to turn out for midweek games, which is a problem still plaguing MLS after 20 years of operation, it increases the possibility of a higher seed getting knocked out. In past years a third-place finish sent a team directly into the two-game conference semifinals; in 2015 those teams will be faced with a must-win playoff game three or four days after finishing their regular-season schedule.
There will be complaints, many of them from the same outlets that a few years ago moaned that the regular season wasn’t meaningful enough. More teams, so goes the logic, dilutes the playoff field and increases the risk of early elimination for a team that has performed better during the regular season. And, depending on which teams host the knockout games, said games often draw sparse crowds.
At the three MLS games played Wednesday, all of which had a bearing on the playoff race, these were the announced attendances: 18,143 (Toronto FC), 11,848 (FC Dallas), 19,457 (Real Salt Lake). In last year’s knockout round, the two games drew crowds of 10,279 (FCD) and 15,518 (Red Bulls). The 2013 crowds were 32,204 (Seattle) and 10,476 (Houston). Such disparities cannot possibly be blamed on the system.
Midweek playoff games on short notice are a challenge to many, but not all, MLS teams. Those problems are a function of the organizations and their markets; if Portland manages to squeeze into fourth place, does anybody doubt a solid attendance would be recorded at Providence Park on just a few days’ notice? TFC fans have waited nearly nine years to land a playoff game; will any of them casually pass up the first one at BMO Field, even on a Wednesday or Thursday?
To its credit, MLS has placed competitive issues ahead of marketing aspects and revenue concerns by instituting and then expanding the knockout round. Yes, the system is harsh on a team finishing third that posts a much better record than a team winding up sixth, but said system also rewards the teams winding up first or second. If allotting playoff places to 12 of 20 teams is too generous, forcing eight of them to play a do-or-die match on just a few days’ rest can ratchet up the intensity and importance of that regular-season finish.
Not every team will choose to go gung-ho all the way to the final whistle of the final regular-season game. A coach might elect to rest his top players down the stretch and not worry so much about homefield advantage if he has to choose one or the other.
The Sounders won the Western Conference and the Supporters’ Shield last year after taking four of six points from the Galaxy in a season-ending, home-and-home pair of games. Seattle thus secured homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, but it was the Galaxy that reached -- and hosted -- MLS Cup by edging past Seattle in the conference semifinals, albeit on the away-goals rule.
Sounders majority owner Joe Roth proclaimed that in any other league, his team would have been the champion. No so in Mexico, which also has postseason playoffs, but his point is valid … up to a point. The playoffs are their own season and in North American professional sports, that is the law of the land.
The Supporters’ Shield winner is on par with the MLS Cup champion in that both are awarded places in the Concacaf Champions’ League. However, under the right conditions, so does the U.S. Open Cup winner. To some, this devalues the performance of the regular-season champion, to which I would say: There is no such thing. The best regular-season record is a point of fact and a laudable achievement, but not a title, per se.
So whichever team emerges with the best record next weekend when regular-season play concludes, it deserves plaudits. And five weeks later, if it has stumbled during the playoffs, plaudits and a Shield will be all it possesses. The true trophy will be housed somewhere else.
Starting with the knockout round that is less than two weeks’ away, and will lop off four of the 12 postseason candidates, a flawed system will play out to dramatic effect once again.