Does the regular season matter?

SEATTLE - OCTOBER 31: Members of the Seattle Sounders FC pose for the team photo prior to the 1st leg playoff game against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Qwest Field on October 31 2010 in Seattle Washington. The Galaxy defeated the Sounders 1-0. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Looking at cumulative totals among the 15 teams that have contested the '09 and '10 MLS seasons, it becomes clear that the Sounders are among the top teams in overall performance, despite their flirtation with the bottom of the League table through the first half of last year.  They are tied (with RSL) at 3rd overall in wins, alone in 3rd overall for fewest goals conceded, and most importantly they are 4th overall in points; which is to say their cumulative record is 4th-best behind L.A., Columbus, and RSL.  They do rank an average 7th in goals scored, but to put that in perspective the Galaxy rank 5th. 

This year's MLS season will be a grueling, 34-match, double round-robin grind.  It may be the last year of the short-lived "balanced schedule" era in which every team plays every other team home and away, just like the Euro's do.  It could very well be said that the team that finishes top of the overall table is truly the League's best, regardless of what a post-season trophy knockout phase may indicate.

While we aren't sure of this year's playoff format, we do know there will still be conferences, and we know there will be 10 teams.  What this means is that the 34-match marathon of a regular season will only eliminate 8 of 18 teams from MLS cup contention, and as we have seen, the MLS postseason is a complete crapshoot.  Each of the last three seasons, a team seeded 7th or 8th has reached the Cup Final, and while in '08 NYRB lost to Supporters Shield winners Columbus, the last two years has seen the low seed lift the Cup.  While one could quite rightly see this as an accomplishment of League parity, and the adage of "win when it counts," one could also take a cynical view and openly wonder what a team's priority should really be.  If winning as many League matches as possible has shown to not give you a demonstrably better chance at winning the MLS Cup, what purpose does success in the League serve?  There is the Supporters Shield, for sure, and while I certainly covet the award, it isn't necessarily recognized as the accomplishment that it is.  The MLS Champion is the team with the MLS Cup, not the Supporters Shield.

And such as it is, Sigi this week, with the start of training camp and a somewhat astonishing 40 players in camp, seemed to announce that this year's goal was MLS Cup or bust, and anything short of lifting that trophy may result in a rebuilding of the team. 

Let's envision a scenario.  Let's suppose that this year the Sounders finish 2nd on the overall League table and they manage to secure progression to the knockout stages of the CCL, but they are knocked out in the semifinals of both the USOC and the MLS Cup.  The Sounders will have finished trophy-less, and won't have the satisfaction of taking on their CONCACAF opponent in the quarterfinals until Spring of 2012.  How do we feel about this?  Does such a season really constitute a stripping down and rebuilding much of the team?

It doesn't help that we still have no idea what exact conference and playoff format is in the works for this year, which is a tad stunning considering that teams have actually begun preparing for the season (and, for that matter, we still don't have a complete schedule).  I suppose there is the possibility that Garber, et. al. have cooked up a formula which will actually reward the regular season in a more meaningful manner than we have seen recently, particularly last year, when the teams seeded 7th and 8h were given de-facto higher seeds by switching to the East, and the Western bracket was a murderers row of teams seeded 1,2,4, and 6th.

These issues strike directly at the heart of competitive credibility, which will always circle back on the League's credibility.  Parity is all well and good, and the "anyone can win the title" philosophy certainly works well for other American/Canadian sports.  However, at least the NHL and NBA bail themselves out by having best-of 7 playoff series, somewhat mitigating the circumstance that they each play overly-long 82-game schedules to only eliminate 14 of 30 teams from championship contention.  By contrast to the MLS, the NFL is stingy with only 12 of 32 teams advancing to the post-season, although the divisional format does create bizarre situations like we saw this last season. 

Another way of looking at parity is to consider that if there is little competitive difference between any two teams in any one game, then what is necessary is a relatively large number of games, and a balanced schedule, to sort out who is really good and who isn't.  The MLS accomplishes this, in spades, as a matter of fact.  They do a better job than any other League of significance in North America.  This makes it all the more mystifying that they are so willing to throw this away come playoff time, weighting one match on one night so much higher than 34 over 32 weeks. 

So, is this season really MLS cup or bust?  Are we willing to overlook a season full of wins, and accomplishments, and memories, if we go trophy-less?  Is this a team that would need to start over if they can't navigate the post-season lottery?  I guess we'll have to wait and see...

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