It's all beards, sweat, exhaustion and euphoria. Every year, that photo perfectly captures the pure joy of achieving something meaningful and the immense effort it required.
The greatest satisfaction, and the most renown, come when you triumph over adversity.
The brutal two-month gauntlet that is the Stanley Cup playoffs stands in sad contrast to the cakewalk to the MLS Cup.
The eight playoff qualifiers -- who earn their bids over the course of a 30-game regular season -- are asked to play just four more to claim the league title.
Technically, the eventual winner doesn't even have to win any of those four games. All you need is a fortunate couple of weeks and a few lucky bounces, and the trophy is yours. Is that any way to crown a champion? Why not just pick one out of a hat?
The MLS playoff format is broken, and has been since it was introduced in 2003. It devalues the champion it's designed to crown, even if that champion is among the higher seeds.
There should never be a question about whether the team that hoists the trophy is deserving. There should never be a doubt that the playoffs provided a daunting test, and clubs that do well in the regular season should always be rewarded with an easier path. The current four-game format, which offers no home-field advantage in the first round, accomplishes none of that.
Most of the attention this fall has been paid to the league's screwed up bracketing process, which rewarded the No. 7 and 8 seeds (Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes) by shifting them over to the less imposing Eastern Conference bracket.
Stupid, yes. But it glosses over the real problem. The four-game, 2-1-1 format punishes regular season excellence by forcing higher seeds to open on the road and by offering home-field advantage for only a one-game semifinal. And it's just far too short to provide any real challenge.
The four games the eventual champ is forced to play equals just 13.3% of the MLS regular season. If the same postseason format is used when the league expands to 34 regular season games next year, that proportion will drop to 11.8%.
Compare that to 18.8%-25% in the NFL (depending on the bye) and 19.5%-34.1% in the NHL and NBA (depending on series length). Those leagues ask far more of their championship hopefuls than MLS.
(We think baseball is a poor comparison, since its games are much less physically demanding than the others. They play every day. Sometimes twice. But, MLB has a similar playoff-to-regular-season ratio as MLS if a club plays the maximum 19 postseason games -- 11.7%. And there's a movement to expand the playoffs after the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011.)
A new MLS playoff format must demand more from the champion. It has to be a title worth winning. But it also has to reward regular season excellence. A deserving champion -- and this is why playoffs are necessary -- demonstrates both consistency during a season and the ability to rise to the occasion and master the moment in a playoff.
Only a playoff pits two excellent teams against each other when the stakes are highest for both. Legends, memories and champions are forged in those moments. That's why playoffs are necessary, and that's why they need to be more difficult to win.
For the fans: the league is reviewing the format and is discussing several alternative options. It understands there are problems with the current system and it's seriously considering alterations.
For MLS: We'll do the work for you. Here's your new playoff format:
We propose increasing the number of games required to win MLS Cup by up to 50% to six. That alone will make it more of a challenge. It's unfortunate that the league so hastily announced next year's move to a 34-game regular season. It not only makes expanding the playoffs more difficult, it puts far more pressure on worthwhile competitions like the CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga.
The main justification for expansion is to create a balanced schedule as Portland and Vancouver enter the league (although that hasn't been announced), but maintaining a home-and-home series with each club will become impossible when there are 20 teams in just a few years. A 38-game regular season is too cumbersome.
Our new playoff format may require a few more mid-week regular season games, although there will be more give in next year's schedule without the two-week World Cup break. Regardless, as more clubs control their own stadiums, playing on a Wednesday or Thursday won't be as onerous a financial prospect as it once was.
Since there eventually will have to be an unbalanced schedule, we advocate maintaining the Eastern and Western conferences. A club's standing within its conference will be more meaningful because it will play the majority of its games against conference rivals.
At the same time, because of the league's single-entity, salary-cap structure, there should never be too much disparity between East and West. This year's is the widest we're ever likely to see.
At the end of the regular season, the top four teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs. We don't care if you finish fifth in the West and your record is better than the fourth-place team in the East. A fifth-place finisher has no claim on a league title. This will produce real races and intrigue inside each conference, and the unbalanced schedule will afford clubs the opportunity to play more games with real impact on the standings.
MLS wants to continue awarding a conference championship. The first-place team in each will be deserving winners and will receive that trophy.
After you prove your worth in your conference, then it's time to prove you're the best in the league. And that's where FanHouse's new postseason format veers from the traditional. We're going national, and we're going with groups.
We propose the playoffs begin with two four-team groups.
|Group A||Group B|
|East 1||West 1|
|West 2||East 2|
|West 3||East 3|
|East 4||West 4|
Fans are used to the group format from popular competitions like the World Cup and Champions League. It's easy to follow, and unlike a traditional bracket system, it makes every game important for each club and its fans. Just like in a World Cup, you're going to care about every game in your team's group, since all will have an impact.
The group stage will increase interest in the entire playoff season and will be easy to schedule at once, in advance. The unpredictability of the best-of-three series (and accompanying burden put on team ticketing departments) killed that format in 2002. By mixing teams from East and West, the groups will offer more varied playoff match-ups each season and will give the playoffs a nationwide (or two-nations-wide) profile.
The higher seeds will be amply rewarded. The No. 1 team in each group will play all three of its group-stage games at home. The second seed will get two home games, the third one and the fourth will pack its suitcases.
The top two teams in each group will advance to the semifinals. The Group A winner will play the Group B runner-up, and the Group B winner will meet the Group A runner-up.
The semis will be a home-and-home series starting at the site of the lower seed. The format will be the same as the current conference semifinals -- aggregate goals, no away-goal tiebreaker and 30 minutes of extra time (then penalties) if the series is tied after 180 minutes.
Here's our wrinkle: If the road team wins the first game, the series is over. As group winners, they deserve the right to clinch early. The incentive for the higher seed to attack will be massive - a berth directly in the MLS Cup Final and an extra few days rest. The game will open up from the first minute.
If the home team manages a win or a draw, we go back to the higher seed's stadium, where they will enjoy the extra 30 minutes of home-field advantage if necessary.
After that, the MLS Cup Final. Each year the game and surrounding activities becomes a bigger event. The increasing exposure is exciting for fans and invaluable to the host city, media and sponsors. It's the one time each year when MLS really commands the spotlight. The neutral site spectacle should remain, and hosting the final will give clubs an additional incentive to build/improve their stadiums and develop a greater presence in their communities.
The champion under this postseason plan will play five or six games, depending on the result of the first match of the semifinal series. It will have negotiated a group stage and an elimination stage, just like the World Cup or Champions League. It will have proven itself over the course of the regular season and in the crucible of knockout competition. And it will do so in a format that's more appealing to a greater number of fans than a traditional bracket, where only your match-up matters.
This format likely requires the addition of one full week to the league schedule.
MLS can find that week. It needs to find that week. It's a small price to pay to produce a truly deserving champion.