The MLS play-off system is coming under scrutiny
Final between mid-table teams
28 November ~ The ESPN adverts for the MLS Cup final on Saturday promise great things: "This is no glitz, no glam. This is game face, winning face, bring-the-cup-home-or-bust face. This is louder than loud. This is MLS Cup. This is soccer." The 2012 title game is between LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo. In the league LA finished fourth in the Western Conference, 12 points behind winners San Jose. Houston were fifth in the Eastern division, ten points short of Kansas City. The championship is being contested by mid-table teams, reigniting debate over the system.
It is difficult to avoid feeling sympathy for San Jose and Kansas, who have had excellent seasons but were both eliminated by this year's finalists. LA Galaxy have reached the Cup final by coming into form at exactly the right time, with Robbie Keane scoring frequently for his 11th club. This has led to accusations that the best way to win MLS is to treat the regular season as an extended warm-up for the play-off tournament. Once a team has sneaked into the play-offs they have the same chance of winning the title as sides that finished way above of them.
Paul Gardner of Soccer America has criticised the "play-off team", a side that "seems to excel – maybe specialise is a better word – when play-off games come around". It is true that where a team finishes in the league bears little resemblance to whether they will qualify for the MLS final. In the last 11 years the title match has been contested by top-four teams on only three occasions.
Those in favour of the play-offs point out that they fit with American sporting tradition. More specifically to soccer, there is the compelling argument that without promotion and relegation, MLS needs play-offs. With nothing to play for at the end of the season – at the either the top or the bottom – there would be far too many meaningless games in the competition. It is also true that LA had to beat top club San Jose and travel to Seattle, the most difficult away ground in the league. Houston beat the top two clubs in the Eastern Conference, Kansas and DC United, to reach the final. And every club knew the rules at the start of the season – a team shouldn't be criticised for winning games.
If MLS does need play-offs, perhaps a system with fewer qualified teams would provide a less bulky and fairer post-season competition. There were complaints about this year's new format. With two dual-legged ties, at least four games were required to reach the final. Both LA and Houston played in an extra knockout game. The cramped schedule meant clubs were forced to play mid-week play-offs between weekend games.
This year's final is a replay of last year's, when Galaxy beat Houston 1-0 in a dull match. All three of LA's Championships have been won with 1-0 victories, two of which went into extra time. Houston have been in three MLS finals and only scored three goals. Going on history this match doesn't promise to be a classic but one team will win, so practice your best "bring-the-cup-home-or-bust face" anyway. Ed Upright