This is the second guest post by Atlanta’s Jacob Chambliss
It’s almost that time of year again, when we as American soccer fans get to observe our own professional league arrive late on the scene (yes, MLS calendar, I’m looking at you). Along with its arrival come several changes: homegrown players look to play a bigger role for their respective teams, the reserve league is on the up and up, and the new Generation Adidas class looks stronger than ever.
But the hotly contested issue coming into the season won’t rear its ugly head until the season’s conclusion. The monster in the closet is the MLS playoffs, of course, and it was highlighted last week when MLS announced the revamped format. The point of contention—for me, at least—concerns the number of teams involved; ten out of the now eighteen teams will participate in the playoffs—six spots for the top three teams in each division, as well as four wildcard spots allocated to teams regardless of division.
Garber himself has said that the change was an anticipatory one. MLS intends to have 20 teams by 2014, with suitors for more expansions in addition to these. The addition of two more playoff spots gives added incentive for teams to perform well during the regular season—teams will fight harder to make those last available spots, so the argument goes.
The antithesis can also be true, however—what is to prevent mediocre play during the regular season if there are more opportunities for mediocre teams to win the MLS Cup? The cup’s history has proved this point—higher seeded teams are not typically winners of the tournament, so simply making the tournament provides a team with more than a glimmer of hope.
This is where the soccer fan in me conflicts with the American in me—to what extent, if any, should playoffs serve as the culmination of a professional soccer league? Garber’s point in the interview mentioned above was that the middle teams in the league now have more incentive to play as more playoff spots are available. Even if I allow Garber’s position on the expanded playoff format for the sake of argument—and that’s allowing a good bit—the problem remains of how one rewards consistently good play on the pitch.
(The MLS Post-Season now resembles the USMNT midfield in some ways and thus our video analogy is….renewed)
The most recent season serves as a good example—the L.A. Galaxy, as Supporter’s Shield winners, played their first playoff game at Qwest field (also the location of their first home game this season). They were eliminated by FC Dallas in the second round (a well-deserved win from Dallas, to be sure).
Colorado, the seventh seed, went on to hoist the cup, with Butterball Casey being named the MVP. For this reason alone, Garber’s explanation that the expanded playoff format will make for a better season isn’t good enough for me. Even if the top seeded team plays a wildcard team, the tourney’s history doesn’t offer adequate evidence that this is in fact a bonus to winning the season.
I won’t offer extended details on how the MLS tourney stacks up (unfavorably) with other American sports—as that topic has been thoroughly explored.
What concerns me is that the soccer season is much more saturated with tournaments than are other American sports.