The Lucky Eight Are In, But MLS Playoffs Reward Lower Seeds
Since Major League Soccer dumbed down its playoff format in 2003, it's been understood that getting hot as the postseason approaches can be just as important as having the better record.
The results indicate as much. In each of the past two years, and in three of the past five, the eighth seed has advanced to the MLS Cup Final (and won it twice). The playoffs begin early for the teams that squeak in at the end, and that must-win mindset continues through the ludicrously abbreviated postseason tournament.
Which is why this year presents such an interesting proposition for three playoff-bound clubs. In 2010, as all the ridiculous aspects of the MLS Cup playoff format combine in a perfect storm of annoyance, the Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes must balance momentum with the reality that they're probably better off losing their respective season finales.
Like the Bowl Championship Series, every time MLS tinkers with its playoff format, it makes it worse. Instead of just blowing up the whole thing and instituting something sensible (FanHouse does have a solution that we'll share following the regular season), MLS has settled for little tweaks here and there that just add to the confusion. That, combined with the obsession commissioner Don Garber and Co. continue to have with crowning an official conference champion, has led to the hot mess we have today.
Under the current rules, the top two teams in each conference qualify automatically, with the next four spots filled by the clubs with the best regular season records, regardless of geography. In 2010, West is clearly best. All eight spots have been filled, and not only will the Western Conference contribute the maximum six teams to the MLS Cup tournament, there's a very good chance that the West's four top clubs could finish with the league's four best records.
And in MLS's infinite wisdom, those four will be grouped together on one side of the playoff bracket. The fifth and sixth seeds in the West will head to the East to play off against the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew.
It's yet another kick in the teeth from a system that punishes regular season excellence. Not only do the higher seeds have to start the playoffs on the road (no other North American sports league foists that injustice upon its playoff qualifiers), now the top teams in the West/league will be "rewarded" with the tougher quarterfinal opponents.
If the season had ended last weekend, here's how the playoff matchups would look:
West No. 1 Los Angeles Galaxy (17-7-5) vs. West No. 4 Seattle Sounders (14-9-6)
West No. 2 Real Salt Lake (15-4-10) vs. West No. 3 FC Dallas (12-3-14)
East No. 1 New York Red Bulls (14-9-6) vs. "East" No. 4 San Jose Earthquakes (12-9-7)
East No. 2 Columbus Crew (13-8-8) vs. "East" No. 3 Colorado Rapids (12-8-9)
Columbus would have the fifth-best record in the West and has stumbled to an 0-3-3 record in its past six league games. Who would you rather play, the flagging Crew or defending champion Real Salt Lake, which looks primed for another title run and is eight points ahead of Columbus in the league table?
By finishing sixth in the West, San Jose gets New York, as inconsistent an MLS team as there has been over the past six weeks. But if they finished fourth, the Earthquakes would get league-leading L.A.
Make sense? Absolutely not.
Here's how the bracket would look if the top two teams in each conference maintained their seeds, but the four wild cards were ranked by point total:
West No. 1 Los Angeles Galaxy (17-7-5) vs. Wild Card No. 4 San Jose Earthquakes (12-9-7)
West No. 2 Real Salt Lake (15-4-10) vs. Wild Card No. 3 Colorado Rapids (12-8-9)
East No. 1 New York Red Bulls (14-9-6) vs. Wild Card No. 2 Seattle Sounders (14-9-6)
East No. 2 Columbus Crew (13-8-8) vs. Wild Card No. 1 FC Dallas (12-3-14)
Or if conferences were eliminated altogether and only point total mattered.
No. 1 Los Angeles Galaxy (17-7-5) vs. No. 8 San Jose Earthquakes (12-9-7)
No. 4 New York Red Bulls (14-9-6) vs. No. 5 Seattle Sounders (14-9-6)
No. 2 Real Salt Lake (15-4-10) vs. No. 7 Colorado Rapids (12-8-9)
No. 3 FC Dallas (12-3-14) vs. No. 6 Columbus Crew (13-8-8)
Both of the preceding brackets are a whole lot fairer and offer a far more compelling postseason than the one MLS will dump on us next week.
That's why Seattle (at Houston), Colorado (vs. Salt Lake) and San Jose (vs. Chivas USA and at Kansas City) are hereby granted permission to tank their final games this week.
Normally I'd be loathe to support such unsportsmanlike shenanigans, but in this case the behavior would be no more ridiculous than the shortsighted playoff format that put them in this position in the first place. MLS has refused to reward winning, and in fact now it's punishing success, and each of the aforementioned trio surely would improve their MLS Cup chances by heading to the East. Surreal circumstances call for surreal responses.
Defeat would help the lucky pair in the short run, and hopefully be the final straw for a playoff format that does both MLS and its fans a great disservice.