The MLS Playoff Stakes – Down the Stretch They Come!

Earlier this morning, none other than Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber tweeted the following:

Great games last night. Tightest MLS Playoff race ever. 7 MLS teams vying for last 3 playoff spots!

I love MLS. I’ve watched it since the beginning. I’ve gone to games since the very first year – even driving through the remnants of a hurricane to get to one in ’96. I want it to succeed and while I follow other leagues around the world closely, I’ll watch an MLS game instead of them anyday.

And, I have a dog in the playoff fight, since the faintly flickering postseason hopes of DC United began to burn just a bit more brightly after a 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew last night at RFK Stadium.

But what, exactly, does this playoff race say about MLS? It’s been my contention for much of the season that beyond Columbus, Los Angeles, Houston, and perhaps Chivas USA, there just aren’t any good teams in the league this season. It’s not a product of MLS being a bad league. On the contrary, I think it’s just one of those cyclical things and in a couple years, things could be very different (especially with more expansion teams coming in and the potential of some conference realignment).

Last year, New York backed into the playoffs off a disgraceful loss to Chicago, then wound up in the MLS Cup final – thankfully being beaten by the Crew. There was no reason to think going in that such a result was going to happen. And none of the teams in the mosh pit going for the last three spots inspire any confidence of a long postseason run, either.

Two of the teams in the seven battling for playoff spots have losing records (FC Dallas 11-12-6; Real Salt Lake 10-12-7). Though you can excuse FC Dallas in a way – they were so bad early in the season that even their better recent form wasn’t going to get them over .500. Two others of the six are .500. Toronto and New England are straddling the cut line at 10-10-9, with the Canadians north of the playoff border.

Not pictured: New York Red Bulls.

Chicago (10-7-12), Colorado (7th, 10-9-10) and (yikes) United (9-8-12) are the only teams in the bunch with winning records. In the nightmare scenario for some United fans who want coach Tom Soehn kicked to the curb, DC could be the team that sneaks into the playoffs and then goes all ’08 Red Bulls, making a run to the finals and having a chance to win a Cup – and potentially save Soehn’s job. Of course, whether an MLS Cup trophy would even save Soehn’s job is something for another blog post – but feel free to comment on that below.

Hell, the ultimate final scenario in my book is United somehow making it, taking on Seattle in its home park. That’d have some spark to it.

But that’s way off in the future (and a 50-1 longshot, but hey, 50-1 longshots win sometimes). Ibut hey, 50-1 longshots win sometimesf you really wanted to make an argument about how MLS should allow fewer teams to make the playoffs, this year I think could be your best evidence. Would that be an overreaction to a bad cycle? Or a logical conclusion to a perceived league problem?

I don’t know the answer to that. As the league grows, staying at 8 playoff teams will somewhat neutralize the issue, because the really bad teams will be farther away from advancing.

And for the fans, there certainly will be excitement in the final weekend. Pete Rozelle would have loved this. And Garber has right to be excited, as I’m guess he is loving this, too.

The question is – does having seven teams (six hovering around .500), and in a sense, all mediocre (except maybe Chicago, who hasn’t yet clinched second in the East), battling for three playoff spots a good thing for the league, or would thinning the postseason a bit make for a better product at that point – when, in theory, we are supposed to be seeing the best soccer?

Personally, and even perhaps despite what the current situation illustrates, I’d leave the postseason at 8 teams, because I think that’s the right amount once the league gets to 18 teams in 2011. But I’m curious to hear what you have to say about it.


11 thoughts on “The MLS Playoff Stakes – Down the Stretch They Come!

  1. I’m with you. Another blogger made an excellent point; while all the parity now is not ideal (with mediocre/poor teams making the playoffs), it may be our best shot of keeping the playoffs at 8 once the league expands. The real danger is Garber or other league honchos deciding that more playoff games= more money and adding a wild-card game or something once the expansions come in.

  2. I like your idea of an ultimate final scenario. And don’t you fret this post-season cup thing because remember United wins trophies.

    As for the number of teams in the playoffs, I have nothing interesting to add to the conversation for I agree with your evaluation.

    BTW: What are the odds of Mine That Bird winning the Cup this year?

  3. It’s pretty hard to argue that Chicago is anything more than mediocre when they have a decent shot of not making the playoffs at all.

  4. It’s only because they are a little bit better than the mosh pit – but if they were good, they would have clinched 2nd in the East already.

    Though, I really don’t think there’s anyone else below them that’s capable and/or worthy of taking the spot away from them.

    It’s good theater that so many teams are left alive, but it’s not the result of, and probably won’t produce, good soccer.

  5. I’m one who thinks the salary cap, nat team call ups and even the weather will always create parity in MLS leading to late-season playoff logjams, even when we get to 8 out of 20 for the playoffs, which will be the perfect percentage. It is nice to have pereniall “powerhouses” like the Crew and Houston, but let’s all agree now that we will accept no whining or bitching from the fans of these top teams if they get upset by say a hot FC Dallas in the first round. We know the rules going in, case closed. I must admit that it gave me a thrill to see those fans in Frisco enjoying themselves the other night as thier club goes on its crazy run for glory.

  6. I would argue that the mosh pit is easily the best part of the concert.

    Let’s say RBNYRBMSOHNJ, SJ, and KC are in the balcony, DCU and our peers are lingering at the back of the club trying to force their way into the mosh pit, which is Houston, LA, Seattle, Columbus, and all the other teams who have already qualified. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people at this concert, so it will be hard for more than a couple of the teams lingering in the back to make a surge towards the front.

  7. BTW, the outrageously long acronym I posted stands for “Red Bull New York MetroStar Red Bulls of Harrison, New Jersey” in case you guys couldn’t decipher it

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