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The MLS play-off system is coming under scrutiny

Final between mid-table teams

icon mlsgameface28 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

On the subject...

Comment on 28-11-2012 12:40:36 by thadachek #736359
And at the top of which League did Champion's League winners Chelsea finish?

The MLS playoffs are fine. People are using too small a sample size to jump to the conclusion that the format is to blame. How about we give it a few years?

And anyway, my club, Sporting KC, lost out because we failed to score more than a single goal over 180 minutes of soccer. San Jose conceded 3 goals during the home leg of their tie. Both scenarios should have been avoidable by good teams playing in Cup quarterfinals.
Comment on 28-11-2012 14:52:45 by GerryForrest #736412
"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."

That is great PR spiel, Ed - I enjoyed that. I didn't realise that Seattle get such good crowds - over 44,000 for the LA Galaxy game
Comment on 28-11-2012 21:22:03 by Nwsm #736503
I have mixed feelings on the Play-Off concept for soccer in North America. I can say for sure what would work better but I strongly feel that it's dragged on to long. There is such a long gap until the final, it kind of leaves that "Who Cares?" feeling. If they must do a play-off maybe it could be condensed in a 30 day period. And also play the game at a predetermined location like the Super Bowl.
Comment on 28-11-2012 21:26:58 by Cesar Rodriguez #736506
European football leagues would be far, far more exciting if they adopted the MLS format. Middle of the pack teams could realistically dream about bringing home the title.

Moreover as someone has mentioned upthread the Champions League has a league followed by knockout format as does the World Cup, the European Nations Cup, the Copa Libertadores and the Europa League nevermind the English league playoffs. Its not as if this type of format is distinct to the North American sporting landscape.
Comment on 29-11-2012 00:38:38 by enzee199 #736562
Your problem here is that you want some sense of fairness- well life isn't fair so why should sport be? Look at exams - you could know the subject inside-out, more than anyone even, but if you don't perform on the day....... or even job interviews - is it the 'best' person who always gets the job, or is there more to it like luck, or knowing the right person, or being in the right-place-at-the-right-time?
Comment on 30-11-2012 17:03:05 by JoBoDro #737191
I think the article misses the real culprit which is the two division system that has been developed (play each team in your division 3 times and the other division 1 time). Last year we had a similar playoff system and LA won after dominating the league; they deserved the double. The problem now is that since the divisions have been seperated, there is no proper Supporters' Shield winner (best league record), so the cup is the sole focus. When San Jose had the best record in the whole league this year, they were named Shield winners despite only playing teams like Kansas City and New York Red Bulls once (Although San Jose proved it against teams like Seattle and LA). San Jose players acknowledged it wasn't good enough and that they wouldn't be validated unless they got the Cup. They were a great team that was a force of nature from start to finish of the season, but in the end official MLS media down plays that acheivement. That's plain stupid; this is the result of the league not being run by a soccer fan, but a former NFL employee. If there were two proper awards then mid-table teams winning the cup would just be a bizarre form of a league cup where upsets are normal.

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