Congratulations to all 10 MLS playoff participants! You have pinned a lovely post-season blue ribbon onto your lapel, and playoff arrival has always stood as the primary MLS demarcation between success and failure over a season.
But if we’re being brutally honest, in a couple of cases, we are looking at the teams gracing the post-season roster only because they erred, fiddled and fumbled just a little less than a few others.
Are there truly 10 MLS clubs that deserve to be in the playoffs?
It was always destined to be this way; back in late November of 2010 when MLS announced a surprise two-team expansion of the post-season field (from 8 to 10 clubs). Plenty of us warned then that it would be this way, and what a real shame, too. Again, we see “small thinking” trump the longer-term “big thinking” from Major League Soccer’s board room.
The logic went like this: keeping more teams involved in the playoff chase longer would get a few more butts in seats down the stretch (because more teams would remain alive in September and October).
But what if more teams were incentivized to build the right kind of audience, real supports, the kind who would quickly understand the value of every match? They kind that would grasp how points earned in April and May are every bit as valuable as points earned down the stretch? Wouldn’t that put more butts in MLS seats through the entire season rather than just beefing up the gate in the fall?
Here’s the net-out as it concerns the MLS playoffs:
We get a team like Montreal, just barely over .500 and with a humble plus-1 goal difference. Is that what MLS wants its playoffs to be about? We get a team that is 2-6-2 over the last two months. That’s bitter coffee to me.
Yes, getting to the playoffs is about points earned over a full season; but the format remains too forgiving, and there’s your evidence.
Even Houston and New England don’t really look like playoff teams, do they? New England is young and just got back in for the first time since 2009, so it’s a good story. But is Jay Heaps’ team a real MLS Cup threat? Debatable.
Dominic Kinnear’s team will be a threat because, well, because it is coached by Dominic Kinnear. So, the Dynamo is clearly a threat because of a manager that understands how to win in the playoffs better than anyone this side of Bruce Arena. But that’s maybe the point. The regular season needs to be more important; it shouldn’t come down to squeaking past the league’s worst team in history on the final match day to book post-season passage.
But it’s not going the other way. I never sense any momentum to fix this pothole along MLS Boulevard. Our best hope now: As the league adds team No. 20 (New York City FC) and then No. 21 (most likely Orlando) and beyond, let’s hope they keep the playoff field at 10 rather than continuing to expand.
The MLS playoffs become a “cup competition,” so to speak. And there’s some luck involved in cup competitions – which is the logic behind crowing the regular season winner the league champ, as so many places do now.
But in the United States we like our playoff system – and I’m fine with that.
Let’s just make it a little tougher to get into the playoffs; there’s the reasonable compromise.