by Steve Fenn
Going into the final week of the season, none of the Eastern conference playoff teams were settled into a particular seed. In most other soccer leagues worldwide every club’s finales are played at the same time, making for more possibilities and excitement.
In MLS last weekend, the playing times of the four games involving these five Eastern clubs had no intersection, and as a result fans got less drama and later-playing teams got clearer playoff scenarios than they deserved going into their finales.
The biggest problem is the competitive imbalance caused by the current approach. Because they were the last of Eastern playoff teams to play, Houston knew before kickoff that they were stuck at fifth, and could rest many starters, which they smartly did.
With synchronized finales, they would have kicked off knowing that they had a shot at 3rd or 4th. Doubtful Warren Creavalle, Cam Weaver, Alex Dixon, and Giles Barnes would have started in that circumstance. Every factor can come into play in a crapshoot like the MLS Cup playoffs, and well-rested difference-makers will be a significant advantage for the Dynamo on Wednesday in Chicago. Also, from a fan prespective, staggered scheduling turned a potentially important match into a clearly meaningless one.
Here are the synchronized scoring timelines of the four matches, with a green boxes every time playoff seeding would have moved up, and red when seeding would have dropped:
Wouldn’t that have been much more fun than the final weekend we experienced? Granted, this chart is purely hypothetical since both New York and Kansas City played against Philadelphia. Also, as stated before, Houston and others would likely have used different players and tactics with more varied seeds available to them. You get the point that all Eastern games running at once would have been more dramatic and entertaining, though.
Synchronized finales would be much easier to implement now than ever before in MLS. The league seemingly committed to an unbalanced schedule that emphasizes intraconference rivalries. They could simply make the last bye be one of the 9 Western clubs and schedule only East vs. East and West vs. West matches duing the final week. Eastern clubs are all within 1 time zone of each other, and Western clubs are within 2 time zones of each other. MLS could schedule Eastern matches to kick of in the afternoon, give fans a little time to catch their breath, then follow it with the West. Or give one conference Saturday and the other Sunday.
As with most things in sports, this comes down to money, marketing, and TV partners. While ESPN, NBC, and Galavision certainly have enough stations at their disposal to put together a nice coverage plan for synchronized finales, there’s no guarantee that they’d be willing to do so. However, more drama and better competitive balance would generally lead to more interest, which would lead to higher ratings and attendance. MLS and its broadcast partners need to find a way to make synchronized finales work.