MLS Cup trophy

Why MLS teams are so desperate to avoid fourth- and fifth-place (with league playoff dates)


We know for certain that teams can and have advanced out of the those yucky fourth- or fifth-place playoff spots, all the way to MLS Cup. Houston and Los Angeles did it last year, after all. So, case closed.

But that doesn’t make it the easier path, of course. And that certainly doesn’t mean any team wants to try it. Here is exactly why MLS players and managers are desperate to dodge fourth- and fifth-place, willing to lay a lot on the line to finish third, at worst, in the East or in the West:

Clearly, the most obvious answer is that an extra chance to lose is, well, just that … one extra chance to lose. Purely statistically speaking, a club with sights set on reaching the MLS Cup final sees its success percentages tumble with that additional round, that added opportunity to fail.

Past that, it’s all about the scheduling, which gets seriously jammed up for teams pushed into that early elimination contest.

Here is the playoff schedule:

  • Single-elimination games (4th vs. 5th place): Oct. 30-31 (Wed.-Thurs.)
  • Conference Semifinals, Leg 1: Nov. 2-3 (Sat.-Sun.)
  • Conference Semifinals, Leg 2: Nov. 6-7 (Wed.-Thurs.)
  • Conference Finals, Leg 1: Nov. 9-10 (Sat.-Sun.)
  • Conference Finals, Leg 2: Nov. 23-24 (Sat.-Sun.)
  • MLS Cup: Dec. 7 (Sat.)

So here’s what a potential bugger of a playoff schedule might look like for some club. We’ll use Seattle as an example, since the Sounders and their implausible tumble are topical:

Let’s say the SigiSounders cannot get a sufficient result this Sunday against Los Angeles. That’s a Sunday night match. Late Sunday, no less.

Sigi Schmid’s team (one without much playoff success as it is) might then have one day before traveling to Colorado (most likely, although it could be Los Angeles) for a mid-week match on Wednesday or Thursday.

If they survive, they would travel back home before a conference semifinal first leg contest on Saturday or Sunday, against a better-rested club. The conference semifinal second leg (more travel) then happens a few nights later, again on a Wednesday or Thursday. Add it up, counting that regular season finale, that’s now four matches in 12 days, with potentially significant travel between each stop.

(MORE: MLS Week in Review for Round 34)

By the way, that’s four matches in 12 days and counting. Because the conference final first legs are scheduled for Nov. 9 and 10. That could mean five matches in 15 days plus travel before a big (and quite quirky) break before the conference finals second leg.

One more thing, that additional match is one more chance to lose a player for the final to yellow card accumulation. And who wants to get all the way to MLS Cup – only to play without your top midfielder or your best center back or whatever?

MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy 3-1 Real Salt Lake (video)

Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme (37) congratulates forward Alan Gordon (9) for scoring against the Real Salt Lake during the first half of a knockout round MLS playoff soccer match in Carson, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are through to the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they’ll take on the Colorado Rapids beginning Sunday, for the seventh time in eight years with a 3-1 knockout-round triumph over Real Salt Lake at the StubHub Center on Wednesday. Alan Gordon put the home side ahead inside the first quarter-hour before RSL drew level seven minutes later, but Emmanuel Boateng bagged a quickfire brace to complete a pair of brilliant individual exhibitions of dribbling inside the penalty area. With Steven Gerrard unavailable and Robbie Keane only fit to feature off the bench, Bruce Arena turned to Gordon, who gave way to Keane early in the second half after picking up an injury of his own, to play the fulcrum of the Galaxy attack, and it worked to near-perfection during the opening half-hour. Landon Donovan started the game and played 87 minutes, providing the kind of defensive work rate that’s been missing up and down the flanks of LA all season. Sebastian Lletget put in a near-flawless passing performance while playing deep in midfield. Don’t look now, but those are the Galaxy’s biggest question of 2016, all just about answered as the playoffs begin. I won’t say, “I told you so” if/when they win MLS Cup 2016, but…

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

14′ — Gordon finishes from close range for 1-0 — Landon Donovan -> Giovani dos Santos -> Alan Gordon. Just like Bruce Arena drew it up in preseason midseason last month this week this morning.

21′ — Plata converts from the spot after Morales’ dive — Javier Morales was angling for a penalty from the moment he entered the penalty area. All Emmanuel Boateng had to do was look at him, and Morales was going down.

26′ — Boateng weaves through to make it 2-1 — Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Boateng took advantage of some poor defending, and the Galaxy were back in the lead.

34′ — Boateng cuts inside, blows past his man, makes it 3-1 — There’s playing in top gear, and there’s having an extra gear that you rarely have to use because no one else on the field has it. Boateng falls into the latter category.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Emmanuel Boateng

Goalscorers: Gordon (14′), Plata (21′), Boateng (26′, 34′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: Toronto FC 3-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): 10 years later, Toronto FC are MLS Cup Playoffs victors. For eight seasons, the playoffs eluded them altogether. Last year, they were one-and-done in embarrassing fashion at the hands of their local rivals. In 2016, it was  their year — a proclamation we’d heard plenty times before — and so far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Wednesday’s 3-1 home victory over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round gets the monkey off the Reds’ back, but more importantly, afforded Sebastian Giovinco, who bagged a goal and an assist on the night (his second straight game with such a line), 90 more minutes of game time after missing more than a month through injuries as the regular season wound down. After 270 minutes of action, the Atomic Ant looks sharp as ever, and destined to terrorize New York City FC, whom TFC will face in the conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

15′ — Atlidore feeds Giovinco for 1-0 — The first playoff goal in TFC’s 10-year history. Poor goalkeeping, ball-watching defending, terrible touches, an overhead cross, and a strike off the crossbar. There’s a lot going on here. Watch it all right here.

49′ — Osorio slams home from the corner for 2-0 — The Union have been bad at defending set pieces all season, so is it at all surprising a set-piece gaffe effectively ended their season? No, it’s not.

73′ — Bedoya puts the loose ball home for 2-1 — Speaking of failing to effectively clear a corner kick, the Union were gifted a lifeline 15 minutes before full-time.

85′ — Altidore puts it out of reach, seals it for TFC — Ken Tribbet did not have the best night a center back has ever seen. His final blunder resulted in Jozy Altidore reclaiming TFC’s two-goal lead, and ending the Union’s 2016 season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Giovinco (15′), Osorio (49′), Bedoya (73′), Altidore (85′)

Men In Blazers podcast: Mourinho’s Chelsea return; Bradley’s 1st point

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo break down Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea with Manchester United, another stumble for Manchester City and Bob Bradley’s first Premier League point.

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VIDEO: Altidore, Giovinco combine for TFC’s first-ever playoff goal

Sebastian Giovinco
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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It’s been 10 years in the making, and Toronto FC finally have their first-ever goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

After failing to qualify for the playoffs in each of their first eight seasons, 2015 saw the Reds venture into the postseason for the first time ever, only to be thumped in the knockout round, 3-0, by their 401 derby rival Montreal Impact, of all sides.

This is the year, though, or so we’ve said and been told all season long. While it remains to be seen how deep of a run TFC can muster in 2016, they’ll always have the Jozy Altidore‘s terrible first touch; Altidore’s wayward second and third touches; Altidore’s overhead cross; and Sebastian Giovinco’s strike, all of which you can watch in all its hilarity glory below.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Playoffs edition | MLS Cup predictions ]