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The 2011 MLS Playoff Format: New Look, Same Old Flaws

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The MLS Cup is considered the League Championship, and like other North American sports, the winner of the Championship is the winner of a playoff.  The MLS structure of the last few years has left many to wonder if this really should be the case.
The MLS Cup is considered the League Championship, and like other North American sports, the winner of the Championship is the winner of a playoff. The MLS structure of the last few years has left many to wonder if this really should be the case.

The playoffs of the last two years have been dogged by some serious concerns.  I'd like to take a look at what I consider to be three of these problems, and whether the new format really addresses or fixes them.

The "Geographical Punishment" problem: 

This has actually been perfectly demonstrated by our own Sounders in each of our first two years in MLS.  In 2009 we finished 4th overall [the 2009 schedule was close enough to being balanced to warrant a single table] but only 3rd in the West.  As a result we took on Houston in the first round, who had finished 3rd overall; while Chicago, 5th overall but 2nd in the East, took on New England, who were 3 in the East but 7th overall.

Last year was a mess.  Three of the top 4 overall teams were in the West, as well as 4 of the top 6 and 6 of the top 8.  Our Sounders, at 6th overall, were nonetheless given the 4th West seed, taking on the #1 overall LA Galaxy.  Infuriatingly enough, Colorado, at 7th overall and 5th in the West, became the East #3, matching up against #5 overall Columbus; and #8 overall San Jose, 6th in the West, became #4 in the East and took on #3 overall NYRB.  Dallas, a team which looked likely to finish #3 overall, were locked into a West #3 seed and had nothing to play for the last two weeks of the season, thus slipping to 4th.  As the #4 overall they drew the #2 overall RSL. 

The 2011 "Fix":

Actually, it appears to be an exacerbation.  Granted, each conference has 1 more team, but there is now 1 more "locked in" playoff spot per conference.  And that "locked in" spot is far more valuable, as it means you get to bypass the "wildcard" or "play-in" round.  The Conference alignment has, in fact, been enhanced by this new system.  While this would make perfect sense if there were unbalanced,  conference-based schedules this year, there are of course not. 

It remains entirely possible that as early as next year, and almost certainly by 2013 when there are 20 teams, that we will see unbalanced, conference-based schedules.  But to keep this conference-based seeding system in place as what seems to be a place-holder for the future, it seems like all the League is doing is sacrificing competitive fairness during this balanced-schedule era for the sake of familiarity.  This strikes me as asinine.

Chew on this: in each of the last two years, the #3 Eastern team has been 7th or lower overall.  But this isn't about East being weaker than West; this isn't about Western teams competing for the Eastern conference championship or vice versa - although the League, rather naively, seems to think so.  What this is about is properly rewarding the regular season (more on this below).  Basing a team's seeding in large part on geography, when this has no bearing on the schedule, is absurd.

The "Importance of the regular season" problem:

A huge complaint about the way the MLS Champion is crowned is that, after a grueling, double round-robin [or as in the case of '09 a double-round-robin +2 more against regional opponents] 7-month long competition, in which teams must grind out results through thick and thin, injury and health, and even amidst other competitions, the Cup comes down to an extremely abbreviated knockout phase in which half, or slightly more than half, of the teams get to participate.  In short, it seems to drastically diminish the regular season, and what I like to call the "sanctity" of those matches.  At some point you must ask yourself what 30 or 34 matches over 32 weeks really mean if an average team can win the championship by dint of what happens over just 4 matches in the last 3 weeks.  

The 2011 "Fix":
A slight exacerbation, a slight improvement, and overall a wash.  What exacerbates it is now, of course, more teams get in: 10 of 18, or 55.5% to be exact.  There will be  those to point out that throughout MLS history 8 teams have made the playoffs.  At one point it was 8 of 10, then 8 of 12, then, then 8 of 13, then 8 of 14 (57%).  The last two years it has been 8 of 15 (53.3%) and obviously 8 of 16 (50%).  It's also worth pointing out that in the old 10 and 12-team MLS the schedules were unbalanced and conference based.  In the 13 and 14-team MLS it was semi-balanced and this is when the conference crossover concept was introduced.  

The slight improvement comes from the fact that there is a slight premium placed on the top 3 in each conference, as mentioned above.  Teams "on the bubble" of that 6-7 spot will obviously be motivated to avoid the wildcard round, as will teams pushing for that 10th spot.  It does little to mitigate the hollow feeling of winning the Supporters Shield, however.  The fact that the #1 overall will play the lowest remaining seed does little to change the obvious flaw from the last few years that there is no genuine home-field advantage in the two-legged conference semifinals.   (there is said to be an advantage to having the home leg second, of course...)  

Meanwhile, the "paper title" of regular season conference winner remains, and there still exists the very real possibility that one bracket may be demonstrably stronger than the other (as in 2010 when the West contained 1,2,4,6 overall and the East 3,5,7,8).  The MLS still gets to crown a "conference champion" and has managed to reduce the chances of suffering the alleged embarrassment of last year when two Western teams played for the Eastern title. and the fact that cross conference teams have won a Conference championship each of the last 3 years.  This was never the REAL problem, however, and the fact that this is the problem they chose to fix demonstrates a tone deafness we have all become used to.

The "Is the Supporters Shield the true Champion" problem:

With balanced schedules and paper conferences, the push for greater recognition of the Supporters Shield winner has gained steam, and for obvious reasons.  As I highlighted in another post, in this balanced-schedule era, it just seems as though the Shield is the most meaningful trophy to win.

The 2011 "Fix":
Probably a rather precipitous downgrade.  For all the reasons listed above and probably even more.  This new format will probably give even more voice to those who would rather win the Shield over the Cup.

I have one final thought: What Took So Long?!  
Really... if you remember Don Garber's MLS Cup half-time interview in which he revealed that there would be a 10-team playoff in 2011, he mentioned that they would spend "30 days" considering the new format, and then announce it.  

It has obviously been a lot longer than 30 days, and this begs the question of what rocket science and brain surgery was required to come up this this system, particularly considering that this was the first and most obvious solution most of us could come up with.

They actually had me believing for a while they had cooked up something special...