The league's playoff system is far from perfect, but wide-ranging criticism over this year's format is based on a small sample size and is misguided.
When the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo meet to decide the 2012 MLS champion, it will be a game pitting the league's eighth-best team against the ninth, based on regular-season records. The game will be the culmination of a postseason in which the only team with the supposed home-field advantage that advanced to the next round was the Galaxy, doing so in the one-game wildcard round.
None of that seems to bother MLS commissioner Don Garber. And despite wide-range criticism of the league's newest playoff format and how it played out in its first year of implementation, it shouldn't bother fans and critics as much as it appears to be.
"I'm not concerned about that," Garber said Monday when addressing the league's playoffs to national media. "I think it's important to remember that...the reality of our regular season is how close [teams] are competitively. It's something that we strive for. It's a big part of the DNA in Major League Soccer."
It is the league's single-entity set-up and cost-effective nature that leads to league-wide parity. And it is that parity that separates MLS from the two-horse La Liga or the top heavy Premier League and makes for great theater, both in the quest for playoff berths down the stretch (some could argue that 10 out of 19 teams making the playoffs is a few too many, but was the fierce competition and different scenarios hinging on every outcome in the final weeks not attention-grabbing?) and in the playoffs themselves.
In comparison to other American sports, in the NHL (when there is hockey, anyway), it is the team with the hot goaltender that often makes a run to the Stanley Cup, not necessarily the top seed over the course of the season. In baseball, the team whose pitching staff gets in a groove can stifle the bats of the regular-season's big-swinging giants.
The NFL has a similar postseason structure to MLS in which the top seeds in each conference get byes and have home-field advantage (albeit all in one-game scenarios). Yet the top seeds do not always win the Super Bowl, and the sport and its format are lauded for the parity and open competition. Underdog stories are all the rage, except when it comes to the world of soccer it seems.
"It isn't always the team that's running the table that ends up in the Super Bowl," said Garber, an NFL employee before his MLS tenure began.
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The fact that the Galaxy was the eighth overall seed completely masks the fact that the club was the hottest team in the league down the stretch and managed to climb out of a last-place hole. That does not make the beginning of the regular season any less significant, it just means that there is a margin for error in MLS. A margin for error that allowed the Dynamo to overcome the outbound transfer of a player like U.S. international Geoff Cameron and wade through the transition and still make it to the final.
If the ultimate desire among fans and pundits is to crown the best team in the league over the course of the year, then why have a playoff at all? Go European-league style and crown the Supporters' Shield winner as league champion. The way MLS and its playoffs are structured, low seeds are bound to make championship runs, and while it is not something that will happen every year, it just so happened to take place in the first year of the new format.
The fact that teams with the supposed home-field advantage struggled to advance is hardly a referendum on the playoff format. It just so happened that those teams, in this one year, failed to take care of business on the road to put themselves in favorable positions heading home. If the league wants to give the higher-seeded teams more of a tangible say on how the series turns out ahead of time, then perhaps giving the higher seed the option of choosing which game it would prefer to host is an avenue to explore.
Each team is going to have a home game during a two-legged series regardless, and a number of coaches would argue that there really isn't a home-field advantage one way or another. Going to a one-game knockout scenario for every round would be impractical and would go against the club standard set all over the world and in the UEFA Champions League for two-game aggregate ties in knockout competitions. Some years the higher-seeded teams will excel. Some years they won't. The playoff system isn't meant to exclusively crown the top seed. Teams have the chance to play their way to glory. It's not the BCS.
The MLS playoff format is not perfect, and it has gone through enough face-lifts over the years for anyone to seriously question the integrity of the manner in which the league determines a champion. That alone is reason enough for the league to stay the course for next year, when no changes to the competitive format will be made.
"Consistency will be the theme for us in 2013," Garber said. "It's something that we've strived to achieve the last number of years."
Garber did say that the league will look to add more days between playoff series, which is clearly a must after seeing teams run on fumes for the conference finals, playing three games in eight days -- and for the Galaxy and Dynamo, five games in 18 and 19 days, respectively.
When the league, finishing up its 17th year, completes expansion and has a firm, long-standing set of competition rules in place for the long haul, this will no longer be an issue or a debate, and the system will be accepted for what it is.
Until then, chalk it up to the growing pains of a league still trying to perfect the way to balance the traditional American playoff system with the soccer competition standards set internationally. But don't pan MLS for having its calling-card characteristic -- parity -- tarnish the run to MLS Cup.
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