With the final whistle last night, the defending MLS Champion Columbus Crew had their chances at defending that title cut short, thanks to the horrific playoff system the MLS continues to institute.
Let me be clear, I know that the MLS is trying to grow and is constantly trying to evolve into a league that is respected around the world. I understand what they are trying to accomplish, and for the most part, they are succeeding.
I also understand that a playoff system was necessary back in the early years of the MLS, when it had just the original 10 teams. It's certainly hard to get a real sense of who's the best when you only have 10 squads.
The MLS now has 15 and will quickly be adding more franchises in its ever-growing league. As new teams arrive, the league gets bigger, the fan base gets broader, the MLS has to lose the playoff system.
I'm sure there are multiple reasons for a playoff system that still stand to justify its status as "THE" thing to do. When the league began, it was influenced by Lamar Hunt and Robert Kraft, along with a few other football owners who happened to enjoy the game of soccer. To them, the playoffs were what had to happen.
With last night's loss, the Columbus Crew are a shining example of why the current system is both illogical and unfair.
Soccer is not like football or basketball. Typically, in those sports, the margin of error in every game is so small due to the sheer athleticism and skill of each player on every team. This is why it's common to see a 6-10 team beat an 11-5 team in the NFL and it's the same reason (at least partially) why the NBA plays 82 games.
Now I will concede that if you look at the MLS tables (divided into conferences, another horrible idea), just a few points separate the leagues better teams. So perhaps the margin of error isn't as large as it is in many European leagues. However, how does the MLS benefit from having its best team not be rewarded?
The eighth best team beat the best team, and based on the format alone, it can be considered fair. Columbus didn't do enough, and they were punished. So why then even play the 30 games the league has them play?
I get what a playoff system means, and call me a soccer snob who only follows the Premier League, but until the MLS goes to a full table, no playoff system, it will always be a poor man's soccer league.
How can you not see a league's mediocrity when potentially its eighth best team can win the cup? How is the MLS's mediocrity not seen when over half of it's league gets to play for the cup in the first place?
Soccer, as a sport, traditionally rewards a leagues best team. Most soccer leagues don't give prizes out to its eighth best team. Until the MLS can be comfortable with having every team play each other twice, and let that be the end of it, it will never attain the status I at least think it wants to attain.
Now I know there are several factors aside from tradition that go into the playoff idea. TV and revenue being at the forefront. However, this will continue to be a problem regardless of whether or not there happens to be a playoff system in place.
While soccer continues to grow in the US, we are far from a country that watches soccer to the extent of following the MLS on TV. ESPN shows one game a week (sometimes none) and Fox Soccer Channel might show two games.
The MLS is up against it geographically as well. It's hard to showcase two of the better teams in a matchup like Columbus at Los Angeles when kickoff comes around 10:30pm in Columbus.
Now I don't want to come off as dogging the MLS. I like the MLS, and while I'm not a supporter of any team, I always monitor the league itself. I have no problem with the MLS as an institution.
The push to get its franchises "soccer-only" stadiums is very admirable as well as necessary if soccer is to truly gain a foothold in the US. The leagues outreach and push to expand the league is also a great thing.
I only have a problem with the league's current format, its playoff system, and its knack for rewarding "the underdog."
I believe that anyone who whines about something as much as I just have should have a plan to change what they are whining about. So here is mine.
Step One. I would propose that the league dissolve its current "division" and lump all 16 teams into the same table. Since the league already doesn't require four teams from each division to make it into the playoffs, this shouldn't be that big of change to begin with.
A full table of 16 would also bring new league rivalries. Sure, the current rivalries based on either geography or competitive history will be there, but a full table opens the door for future rivalries we have yet to see.
Finally, a full table would bring the type of open competition the league hasn't seen in its 13 seasons.
Step Two. I would do away with the playoff system entirely. The fact that Columbus can't defend its title because it was unable to perform in two games out of the 32 it played is extremely wrong. A season of great achievement has now been punished, and all the Crew players and fans are left with is anxiety for next year.
The playoff system is thought of as "goofy" among most World Football circles, and while the MLS is starting to get some star studded talent despite those players being in the sunset of their careers, the league format really cancels their presence out.
Let's let the whole season be a playoff. Everyone played 30 games this season and the winner only managed to scrape 49 points out of 30 matches, the eighth best team was just three wins shy of that mark. There is enough parity in the league already, a playoff system can only serve to punish the better teams.
Step Thre. If the MLS has a desire to create a playoff atmosphere, do it, but keep it mutually exclusive from the league itself.
I would like to see a league cup. Begin the league cup in late May, you can even call it the MLS Cup, and keep the same trophy (which has changed designs more times than I can count—also illustrating the league's ineptness to establish tradition).
It would resemble just about every league tournament around the world. You'd have a draw, drawing the eight home teams first, and then pairing them up with the eight remaining teams.
The format would be single elimination; however, should the two teams draw, a replay would happen the following week at the second team's home field. The Cup Final could be kept in American tradition of a moving venue.
It would fit nicely with the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League cup tournaments. It would also provide some of the young players and managers the competitive experience a cup tournament usually produces.
The MLS needs a change to its playoff system that rewards hot teams, punishes teams who managed to navigate a 30-game season successfully. Until it does, the league will be steeped in mediocrity and unfairness.