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How well did Major League Soccer’s format work in 2013? Few qualms with this year’s results


One of the themes of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber’s Tuesday State of the League address was competitiveness. The league, he said, wanted to be the most competitive in the world. What exactly that means, we’ll wait for another time to nail down, but the Commissioner did point out that five teams finished within six points of the league’s regular season title. From MLS’s point of view, it’s a pretty safe assumption parity is a highly desired quality when assessing competitiveness.

In a league like that, playoffs are almost obligatory, with a 34-game regular season unlikely to be enough to distinguish squads being pulled toward the mean. But given most of the world persists without crowning champions through postseasons, it’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer’s system worked. After a regular season and three rounds of playoffs, has the competition format done a good job of identifying the two teams that should be competing for this year’s title?

That is, after all, what this is all about, right? Sure, you need to play enough games to pay for the whole thing, but ultimately a league needs to have a credible competition. It needs to have a format where the best teams are rewarded; else, it becomes pretty difficult for people to buy into your league.

It’s one thing to have a number of teams capable of competing for a title, or even have the occasional shock winner. It’s something entirely different to be perceived as a place where champions might as well be drawn out of a hat, with too many teams having a shot-in-the-dark chance of claiming a championship.

MLS seemed to be approaching that in 2009 and 2010, when two Western Conference teams played their way through the East before claiming MLS Cup. The league’s subsequent tweaks have helped with that perception. There’s no more conference crossover. Now, the top five teams from each conference make the postseason, never mind that a sixth place team might be better than a higher finisher from the other conference. The schedule, an equitable double round robin, is now unbalanced, so teams play more games within their conference. Instead of MLS Cup final at a predetermined site, the finalist with the best regular season point total hosts the game.

source: Getty Images
Matt Besler, seen here on international duty with the United States, missed 11 game this year for a Sporting Kansas City team that fell one point short of the Supporters’ Shield. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Having a playoff system means you don’t need to answer those questions. Teams just need to make the playoffs, and although the whole thing kind of goes awry when a low-finishing hot hand blazes through the postseason (rendering the bulk of the season meaningless), everything looks great when you get to the end and two proven contenders are fighting for the league title.

In that respect, this year’s competition format worked. The best teams not only qualified for the playoffs but they didn’t cruise through the regular season. At year’s end, two teams firmly ensconced in the “who’s the best team” debate are competing for the final. What more could you ask for?

Perhaps a better way of settling home field advantage for MLS Cup? With an unbalanced regular season schedule, awarding home field to the highest point getter is only truly fair when the quality conferences are balanced. Right now, they’re not. In time the East may improve, but right now, there’s little question the West is the stronger conference, and because Real Salt Lake played more games against that tougher circuit, they finished two points short of Sporting Kansas City. The Eastern Conference champions aren’t hosting Saturday’s game because they were the better team through the end of October. They’re hosting because MLS gave them an easier schedule.

The most-obvious solution is to alternate which conference hosts MLS Cup finals. Recognizing that the unbalanced schedule is both beneficial (in terms of travel, building rivalries, and the other reasons why MLS implemented it in the first place) and makes it impossible to meaningfully compare the records of teams from different conferences, the league should simply switch off. In even-numbered years, one conference hosts the game. In odd number years, it goes the other way. MLS would avoid the problems for the previous format (potentially having a neutral’s atmosphere when fans are such an important selling point for the league) while avoiding the issue introduced by the unbalanced regular season schedule.

Think about how well this would have worked in 2011 and 2012. Instead of two games in Los Angeles between the Galaxy and Dynamo, we would have had one in Carson, the other in Houston. While you could argue the Dynamo didn’t deserve to host either of those games, Los Angeles didn’t exactly plow through the regular season in 2012. If they would have travelled to BBVA Compass last year, few would have complained.

But as far as 2013 is concerned, the qualms about home field and MLS Cup are a relatively minor concerns – the type of wrinkle you’d expect from an 18-year-old league still playing trial-and-error with its rules. If we’re worried about whether home field is decided in a fair way come the season’s last game, we should probably move away from the current system. Otherwise, 2013’s been a pretty good once for MLS’s competition format.

MLS Cup Playoffs: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Sporting KC (video)

Seattle Sounders defender Brad Evans celebrates after Sounders' Nelson Haedo Valdez scored a goal against Sporting Kansas City in the second half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Seattle. The Sounders beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There’s a ton to unpack here, so we’ll dive right in. The Seattle Sounders topped Sporting Kansas City in the final knockout-round game of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. Nelson Valdez scored the game’s only goal, an 88th-minute header, but not without supreme controversy. For starters, Valdez was offside as Joevin Jones played the ball into the box, just as Matt Besler was on a free kick for Sporting earlier in the second half. Besler’s goal was ruled out for offside, Valdez’s was allowed to stand. Benny Feilhaber, perhaps in his final game for Sporting, played like a man possessed and so nearly singlehandedly won the game for Sporting at multiple points on the night. Stefan Frei stood on his head and refused to allow such an occurrence. Osvaldo Alonso could have been sent off twice on the night — once on a straight red; once on a second yellow — but finished the game with just a single caution. Up next, the Sounders will take on Supporters’ Shield-winning FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals.

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

Three Four moments that mattered

10′ — Zusi hits the post with a strike through traffic — Benny Feilhaber’s through ball to set up this double-chance for Sporting in sumptuous, and fully deserving of a proper finish.

53′ — Besler heads home, but he’s offside — This is about as close an onside/offside decisions get.

79′ — Frei denies Feilhaber after a spectacular run — Feilhaber’s run was mesmerizing, but Stefan Frei’s save was the tiniest bit better.

88′ — Valdez heads home the late winner — If Besler was offside, Valdez was offside. An unfitting end to a thrilling game.

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

Men of the match: Benny Feilhaber

Goalscorers: Valdez (88′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: D.C. United 2-4 Montreal Impact (video)

CORRECTS DATE - Montreal Impact forward Matteo Mancosu, back, celebrates his goal with Ignacio Piatti (10) during the first half of an MLS playoff soccer match against D.C. United, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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The game in 100 words (or less): There are epic playoff collapses, and there is the MLS Cup Playoffs abomination put forth by D.C. United on Thursday. Playing host to a Montreal Impact side that won just two of its last eight regular-season games and crawled over the finish line, United — winners of four of their last five and one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch — no-showed Thursday’s knockout-round tie, and their season is deservingly finished. Laurent Ciman put the Impact ahead inside the first five minutes, and United never recovered or seemed the least bit urgent with their season on the line. Matteo Mancosu bagged a brace either side of halftime to make it 3-0, and Ignacio Piatti, who was his usual brilliant self — so good, in fact, he made you forget Didier Drogba was unavailable due to injury/dispute over his role as a substitute — added a fourth not long before full-time. Lamar Neagle grabbed a late consolation goal for United, bringing them back to 4-1 before Taylor Kemp fired a laser past Evan Bush for 4-2 late in stoppage time, but that’s as close as they’d get. Up next for the Impact, it’s the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

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

Three moments that mattered

4′ — Ciman slots home from a corner for 1-0 — An absolute dream start for Montreal, as Ciman gets front side of his marker and benefits from a fortunate bounce after he scuffs the shot.

43′ — Mancosu slams home Piatti’s cross for 2-0 — Someone tell DCU that the knockout round is most definitely win-or-go-home. Horrific defending. Ball-watching all over the place. This is not the same team that won four of their last five in order to host this game.

58′ — Mancosu heads home at the near post for 3-0 — Steve Birnbaum has not had the greatest end to the 2016 season. Stay healthy, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron.

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

Men of the match: Matteo Mancosu

Goalscorers: Ciman (4′), Mancosu (43′, 58′), Piatti (83′), Neagle (90′), Kemp (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
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The knockout round of the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs concludes on Thursday, as four teams vie for the final two places — one in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western Conference — in the conference semifinals, which begin on Sunday.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round ]

Up first, the East’s fourth-seeded D.C. United welcome the five-seed Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium for the two sides’ third meeting of the 2016 season. Each of the year’s first two clashes finished a 1-1 draw, in July and August. Didier Drogba is expected to be unavailable for the win-or-go-home tie. United finished the regular season with four wins in the last five games, while the Impact won just two of their last eight.

[ MORE: Preivewing Thursday night’s knockout-round games ]

In the nightcap, the West’s fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders will take on the five-side, Sporting Kansas City, at CenturyLink Field. Sporting were victorious in both regular-season meetings this year — 1-0 on opening day, and 3-0 in late-July, the day the Sounders essentially quit on Sigi Schmid. Since that blistering hot day in KC, the Soudners have lost just twice in 14 games (eight wins, four draws).

Thursday’s MLS Cup Playoffs schedule

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC — 10 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo says Ashley Cole is the toughest player he faced

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Cristiano Ronaldo has faced the best defenders in the world during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team.

He has also caused fits for most of those defenders with goal after goal for club and country. But, there have been some players who have at least made it difficult for the all-time leading goal scorer in Real Madrid and Champions League history.

According to Ronaldo, former Chelsea and Arsenal defender Ashley Cole was the toughest player he has faced in his career.

[ MORE: VIDEO: Incredible Pelle goal in China ]

“Over the years I had some great battles with Ashley Cole, he does not give you a second to breathe,” Ronaldo told Coach Mag. “He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game.”

During his time with Manchester United, Ronaldo faced Cole on numerous occasions while Cole was with Arsenal and Chelsea. The two have also faced off in international competition between Ronaldo’s Portugal and Cole’s England.

It’s certainly high praise for Cole, who now plays in MLS for the LA Galaxy. At the age of 35, Cole has started 25 matches for the Galaxy this season, scoring one goal.