Concerns linger after MLS tinkers with postseason format
MLS didn't solve glaring flaws by expanding the playoffs from eight to 10 teams
Regular-season success isn't being properly rewarded in the playoff format
Players and coaches don't seem to love the new system but see certain positives
If only the rest of us could gain an inner peace regarding the MLS playoffs as New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe has.
The latest round of fussing and debating over the postseason structure commenced last week when the league announced a belated, revised format for 2011. This one was a double whammy. Not only were some of the unpopular elements retained, but the postseason for the 18-team league also was expanded to 10 clubs.
At least fans had a while to digest the additional two entries; MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the decision last November, a real shocker to the eight-team system used since the inaugural playoffs back in 1996.
Backe, at least, is in a good place about it all. He told the New York Post last week that he doesn't think highly of the playoffs at all. Rather, he's drawn a solid bull's-eye on the Supporters Shield, the award for the best regular-season record. He, for one, has proclaimed the MLS Cup a lesser accomplishment.
"Maybe it's because I'm European, but I would like to win the Shield,'' he told the Post. "I'm not sure I care about the MLS Cup, [but] we need to be No. 1 after 34 games; then you've proved you're the best team in the U.S. Then of course you can see with a Cup what you can do. But that, for me, is more like a mini-tournament for five games. Being No. 1 after 34, that's the target for me and the team."
You have to say this for Backe's view: It saves a bunch of explaining.
For the rest of us, here goes: The top three finishers in each nine-team conference advance to the playoffs. Four teams with the next highest point totals, regardless of conference, qualify as wild cards. They'll meet in single-game elimination matches at the site of the higher seed.
The two wild-card survivors then join the other six in two-game aggregate series conference semifinals. The lowest seeded wild-card survivor meets the regular-season overall champion, while the other wild-card survivor meets the remaining conference champion. So, at that point, cue the storm over marginalized advantage for conference champs, who gain no decided edge in a home-and-away series over a wild-card survivor. That may be the new structure's biggest flaw from a competition standpoint.
This is also where it gets a little screwy, because the crossover structure once again permits the possibility that an Eastern Conference club wins the West, or vice versa. When Colorado (from the West) claimed the Eastern crown last year, Garber became a strong advocate of dodging these awkward swaps. Apparently, that strong advocacy didn't take -- although the chances of it happening have now been reduced.
From there, the higher surviving seeds host one-game conference finals. Winners meet in the MLS Cup final at a yet-to-be-determined neutral site, despite some momentum last fall for a championship hosted by the higher seed.
So MLS kicked the can down the road regarding some of the unloved elements. Most contentious is the hodgepodge of single-elimination games and aggregate goals series. The three playoff rounds now go like this: one-game format, followed by a two-game aggregate goals format, followed by a return to the one-game format.
For those of us who complained about just one mid-stream shift, who knew we'd look back on those as the good old days? Nor do fans and media -- if you believe the blogs and discussion sites -- seem to care for the two extra spots. Everyone grimaces at the possibility of a sub-.500 club gaining postseason entry, but here comes that ugly duckling again.
As for other players and coaches aside from Backe? They aren't exactly rushing to defend the new structure, but they don't seem too bent out of shape about it either.
Gary Smith, coach of the reigning champion Colorado Rapids, doesn't mind the playoff expansion. "It keeps teams fighting for something, even those teams that just have an outside chance of making a wild-card spot," Smith said. "So most teams are going to be fighting until the end. And fans are going to want to come watch games that have something on them, aren't they, rather than just playing the season out?"
That was certainly the intent. Ten qualifiers among 18 teams means that 56 percent of the field makes the postseason. That's more or less the same as the NBA and NHL, where 53 percent qualify (16 of 30 teams). NFL (38 percent, or 12 of 32 teams) and Major League Baseball (27 percent, eight of 30) are far more selective by comparison.
Critics say -- and have long said when it comes to MLS -- that such a high percentage dilutes regular-season significance. But Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president of competition and game operations, takes the opposite view.
"It will mean that the battle and the race for the playoffs will have added intensity and last longer through the regular season," he said. "And that, on balance, should be a good thing for the play on the field, and for the fans in the stands and at home."
That may be true. But tell that to a team that performs wire to wire, chewing up the league over a season that last seven months, only to be ousted by some Johnny-come-lately that sneaked in with a losing record. It could happen. It has, in fact.
Real Salt Lake prevailed in MLS Cup 2009 after playoff qualification by the slimmest of margins, an 11-12-7 record. RSL's first victim was the Columbus Crew, that year's Supporters Shield winner.
"I know that doesn't look great, but that's just part of it," Real Salt Lake midfielder Will Johnson said over the weekend.
For the record, he values the Supporters Shield, and he understands Backe's viewpoint. He says the Supporters Shield winner is the best team through the course of the entire campaign, and that "there's no debating it." But he understands the other side, too.
"How you feel about these things comes down to how you were brought up," Johnson said. "A lot of our American owners in the league, a lot of American players, a lot of coaches, they've been around the playoff system all their lives from other sports. So that's the way it goes."
Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes probably represents the way most people feel about it all: He likes some parts (thumbs up to the expanded field, he said) but isn't crazy about others (he'd prefer consistency within the rounds over the variation between one- and two-game series). But he knows that it's impossible to please everyone.
"We're expanding as a league," he said. "So not only do we have to do right by the teams, as to how we arrive at the championship, but also have to balance the number of teams and the expanding field as to how they engage the playoffs. All these things are challenges as we continue to grow."