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.
In a typical season, you’ll have the U.S. Open Cup in addition to the CONCACAF Champions’ League and possibly the SuperLiga. AND, there are the various international tournaments that occur during the summer months—the Gold Cup, Olympics, Confederations Cup, World Cup, and the various other competitions (Euro, African Cup of Nations, etc) in which MLS players will be involved. Add all this up, and you have a hefty set of them during a given year. Thus the playoffs only seem to highlight what is lacking in MLS versus the top five leagues in the world; the promotion/relegation battle ensures constant drama at all levels of the top flight teams in these leagues, and the current infrastructure in the States simply can’t support this type of format yet, if indeed such a system is in the works.
This is not to say that playoffs have no place in MLS. To be fair to Garber and the rest of the MLS execs, their inclusion is one of the things that make the league distinctly American. Another qualification that should be reiterated is that the current playoff format is temporary—come 2012 a more permanent format will be established. Moving forward, then, MLS must determine to what extent playoffs should serve a role in the league’s season, and how to award consistent performance during the season while (perhaps in the future) discouraging poor performance. Before I accept the playoffs as a wonderfully “American” touch to the beautiful game, then, Garber and friends ought to give the league a good hard look before deciding that MLS will go the way of other American sports rather than that of the world’s sport.