Monday MLS Breakdown: Imbalance Reveals Flaws In Current Playoff System

Competitive balance impacted by conference-restricted playoff bracketing.
Only in MLS could Los Angeles control its destiny in such a perverse manner.

The Western Conference leaders faced two stark choices as it entered last night's match with FC Dallas. Bruce Arena's side could either (1) clinch the Supporters' Shield and seal a date with Seattle (sixth overall in the combined league table) in the first round of the playoffs with a win or a draw or (2) arrange a two-legged series with FCD (tied for fourth overall) and hand the Shield and the corresponding home-field advantage in the Western Conference final over to Real Salt Lake with a defeat.

Los Angeles chose the first option and collected its third Supporters' Shield with a 2-1 victory over FCD, but the outcome only served to underscore a broader point about the inadequacies of the current postseason arrangement.

The playoff system needs to change in order to protect regular season achievements and restore competitive balance in the postseason.

A look at the first round pairings – juxtaposed with each team's final placement in the race for the Shield – reveals the inherent problem with the current structure:

Eastern Conference
New York (3) v. San Jose (8)
Columbus (T-4) v. Colorado (7)

Western Conference
Los Angeles (1) v. Seattle (6)
Real Salt Lake (2) v. FC Dallas (T-4)

It doesn't take much to see that the current system hinders better teams and better conferences while bolstering comparatively weaker ones. But how did the problem reach the point where it now has such an obviously detrimental impact on competitive balance?

The answer lies in how MLS constructs its postseason tournament. MLS uses a mixture of conference standings (top two from the East and West) and wild card berths (the next best four teams regardless of conference affiliation allocated by conference first) to fill its Eastern and Western Conference playoff brackets. In this particular context, the conferences cause the problems.

MLS embraced the conference system for several reasons – the allegiance to the traditional American model, the chance to trumpet a team as a conference winner, the desire to cultivate rivalries and the need to parcel out games in an imbalanced schedule among them – back in the nascent days of the league, but its usefulness as a playoff organizing structure looks well and truly outdated given the current circumstances.

(Side note: It is worth noting that MLS is discussing a possible return to an imbalanced schedule in 2011 with a potential emphasis on local derbies. Those ideas merit a longer discourse during the close season, but suffice it to say the return of such scheduling tomfoolery would represent a step backwards for the league.)

If MLS wants to cling to the conference structure instead of opting for a true seeding allocation for postseason play, there are other ways to integrate the concept without unduly penalizing successful regular season teams. The best of these ideas involves creating a reward for conference powers, mitigating the potential harm in the event of a power disparity between the conferences and shifting to a single-table approach for the postseason.

The top regular season team in each conference could be guaranteed a top two (or three, depending on the alignment) seed as the reward for their regular season achievements. Once those protected seeds are distributed, the rest of the teams would be seeded according to their finish in the overall table regardless of conference affiliation. As an added enticement for regular season success, the conference champions could be named at the end of the season rather after the playoff semifinals.

Modified Playoff Structure with Protected Seeds for Conference Champions

(Note: New York would slide up one spot from true seeding, while RSL would move down one rung)
(1) Los Angeles v. (8) San Jose
(4) FC Dallas v. (5) Columbus

(2) New York v. (7) Colorado
(3) Real Salt Lake v. (6) Seattle

Clinging to the current conference-based setup presents significant competitive balance issues when conferences are not perched equally. Unfortunately for MLS, this scenario has occurred in each of the four postseasons since wild card berths were introduced in 2007.

In this particular campaign, the four Western Conference teams face a considerably more difficult postseason task because they performed well during the regular season. The fifth- and sixth-placed teams out West and the two Eastern Conference qualifiers earned theoretically easier postseason tasks simply because the East faltered so badly during the campaign. The current arrangement also leaves open the possibility for a third consecutive crossover conference champion to join Real Salt Lake (2009) and New York (2008) in the annals of geographical confusion.

All of the shuffling obscures the one fundamental tenet ignored by the current system: playoff seeding should reflect regular season performance. On the whole, the present approach fails to meet the simplest of criteria and undermines the sanctity of the postseason in the process.

Plenty of potential solutions exist – MLS commissioner Don Garber has said on multiple occasions that the league will explore them prior to next season – but those potential fixes won't help Los Angeles or the other adversely impacted teams before the playoffs start on Thursday. Instead, those teams will have to cope with their current fate and hope the current system doesn't play a significant part in an earlier-than-expected demise.

Columbus, FC Dallas at risk in opening round matchups

With the postseason field now set, here's a brief look at the four opening-round ties:

Los Angeles (W1) v. Seattle (W4): This pairing isn't an ideal one for either club. … Los Angeles doesn't possess the personnel to cope with Seattle's speedy wide players, while Sounders FC struggled to contain the Galaxy's attacking corps in two heavy regular season defeats. … The outcome will rest on which team can keep its defensive wits and provide the necessary foundation for offensive success.

Real Salt Lake (W2) v. FC Dallas (W3): The mojo around FCD isn't particularly positive right now after a pair of losses to end the season. … Between the injuries to key players and the loss of form by Dax McCarty, FCD can count half of its starting XI as question marks heading into the series. … RSL faces far fewer concerns and holds the edge due to its rock solid defense and its significant home-field advantage.

New York (E1) v. San Jose (E4):
Of the four series, this one looks the least likely to end in an upset. … San Jose claws and scrapes for everything, but the Quakes lean too much on Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski to convert up front and need to sort out an occasionally leaky back four. … New York has injury concerns with Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez still short of match fitness, but there's enough quality in the wide areas and enough focus at the back to see the Red Bulls overcome this hurdle.

Columbus (E2) v. Colorado (E3):
While Columbus stopped the rot with a pair of victories this week, the Crew enters the postseason as an upset candidate for the second consecutive season. … Losing William Hesmer for the postseason is a big blow for the Crew, but the real problems stem from a mediocre central midfield and a suspect back four. … Conor Casey and Omar Cummings comprise the best strike tandem in the league and the Rapids could go through if they keep the supply lines to the front two open without losing much from their underrated defensive shape.

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