Friday, November 2, 2007

Playoff Paramour

I'll be shameless and admit I love the MLS playoffs. Yep, yep, I'm having a good time these days. I adore competitive games where everything is on the line. The funny thing is how many people will send me emails saying "Such and such playoff game great! But I don't think playoffs should exist. Single table all the way."

I disagree, but that's nothing new. I've written a defense of the playoffs every year, it seems. OK, I didn't this year, but that's because I'd pretty much said everything before. I didn't want to repeat myself. However, if you missed my column last season, don't bother searching for it - the Soccer365 redesign wiped out all my old columns.

If you're curious as to how I could possibly defend the playoffs - well, here's the text of that article:

Playoff Haters (originally published Sept. 2006)
Ten points. 29 to 39. Four wins versus the same amount of losses. That’s all that separates the bottom of the Western Conference (LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake) from the top (FC Dallas). All the other teams are squeezed into the middle, which is why coach Dominic Kinnear was so frustrated about the non-call after Dwayne DeRosario went down in the box near the end of the Houston/Chivas USA game.
In the Eastern conference, with 47 points, DC United is still sitting pretty even after the ugly loss to the Galaxy. However, only three points separate the grouping of the next four teams – New England, Chicago, Kansas City and New York.
Folks, we’ve got playoff races on our hands. All fans who give a fig about their team should be nervous, fighting that slight heartburn which comes with both the anticipation and horror of what the future holds.
No one is safe.
Even DC, from its lofty perch in the standings, should be a bit anxious. Last year, the team just seemed to assume holding Chicago to a scoreless tie was enough – they’d win in their vaunted home field of RFK. Except what ensued was the most lopsided playoff loss of the 2005 season.
No one else is even contemplating the postseason seriously yet. It’s going to come down to the wire, frankly. Every game from here to the last game has playoff implications.
Of course, every game back in April, May, June and July did, too. Teams are probably kicking themselves a bit, thinking, “Man, if we’d just won that one game, back in _______, we wouldn’t be so stressed right now to make the playoffs.”
To which I’d say (if these hypothetical words were ever spoken to me) “Ha!” A laugh of cold sympathy you’ll get from me if the “regular season matters little” line gets trotted out, but then you actually find yourself sweating to get your team to the battle for the hardware.
If it’s so easy to make the playoffs, why have no MLS teams completely assured themselves of it? Of course, one may look at the simple numbers. Eight of twelve teams make it, so the odds are actually in favor of arriving to the playoffs.
That’s simplistic reasoning, though, to take that percentage and then apply the adjective “easy”.
Instead, imagine a context with a goal that competitive people want – say, entrance into the country’s most prestigious med school. Everyone admitted to the premed program has impressive test scores and high grades. Yet there is a mandated attrition standard of 1/3 of the class being dropped from the program. So even if a student is one wrong test question below the line, that person is out, and told to reapply next year, no matter how much work has been already done that particular year.
Some may crack under the pressure and give up, making those who are left breathe a bit easier. In other years, not only are the students bright and hardworking, but they may all happen to be incredibly persistent. Everyone pushes each other, and the outcome for many might not be decided until the final exam of the year, when all the heartbreak and hope is on the line.
The truth about parity is that it hurts. It’s painful to realize that as hard as one might work, others are working just as much. It’s tough to face that the talent one has is matched by the ability of another. No one likes to leave things in the cruel hands of fate.
But that’s life, which is what makes sports such a thrilling metaphor of the struggle for achievement. It’s certainly more compelling than watching a bunch of med students take tests.
In a league where no team fears another overmuch, where so little is decided from top to bottom, it’s a wide-open race to the finish.
I think that drives some people a little nuts. Fans can’t decide who is the top dog or the underdog. Coaches attempt to divine a winning formula. Some believe the uncertainty is part of the excitement of the whole design. It does, however, leave others thinking there’s got to be a better way to structure the playoffs.
Some, of course, want to emulate Europe in every way, instituting a single-table, with the champion decided by point total. Putting aside all the impracticality of scheduling an equal amount of games between all the teams (travel, stadium schedule), let’s just look at how that would kill the interest for this season, since DC is so far ahead. They’d have to win just a few more games to sew up the title. The issue of how fair it is to award the title to a team less affected by an international competition is another matter. In order to neutralize the impact, teams could deliberately try to avoid acquiring players who might see such duty. That would do wonders for the quality of the league.
Others say that a single table should decide the playoff teams and the playoff number should be reduced to only six. As such, then, this season the Eastern Conference would be in danger of being represented solely by DC United. If people think that soccer struggles to get attention now, imagine the fallout after roughly half the country has no team to root for in the postseason.
Kansas City Wizards coach Brian Bliss couldn’t seem to make up his mind about the format.
“It’s easy to make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean there’s less pressure to make the playoffs,” he claimed.
The statement seems contradictory because there’s usually less pressure involved in doing anything that’s easy.
“We create our own pressure, because we want to do well,” Bliss tried to clarify.
His proposed change?
“Reduce the amount of teams that get into the playoffs, and give the top teams a bye. Something of that nature would put more emphasis on the regular season.”
Yet Bliss immediately offered evidence that the regular season did have emphasis.
“I don’t think the teams that are fighting for playoff position are taking it any lighter, or thinking, ‘Oh, we can coast into the third or fourth spot.’ If you look at our division, everybody’s still in the mix, going to the last six or eight games.”
The Wizards are probably well aware of how a regular season lapse can hurt a team. The year after they won the 2004 U.S. Open Cup and made the MLS final with a better regular season record than their opponent, the Wizards failed to make the playoffs.
“One of the reasons that I think I got my job is because we didn’t do well at the end of the season,” explained Bliss, who was promoted to interim coach after longtime coach Bob Gansler, a former national team coach, was let go earlier this year.
“We had a good start and then a mediocre middle part and we slipped down in the standings,” recalled Bliss of 2005. “We’ve got all these guys in the locker room who know what happened. I think that’s playing a part in the fight that our guys are putting up in order to hang in there.”
The Wizard’s star defender, Jose Burciaga, apparently believed fortune was partly to blame for the team’s failure to make the playoffs in 2005.
“We’ve been unlucky,” Burgiaca stated. “You need some luck sometimes and I think that’s what we had in 2004. I think if we get into the playoffs, I think we’ll be fine. Teams have to watch out for us.”
Burciaga touches on what to me is a great aspect of the playoffs – the fact that any team who makes it that far then has a shot at the title. It gives every team left both hunger and hope.
Single table provides little incentive for the teams safely in the middle of the pack, but out of the running for the top. That’s not a problem for those who prefer that system, but there are many who do not.
For example, I’ve noticed that many who have experience with Mexican soccer prefer the playoff system – they’re used to it from the MFL. A lot of converted American fans used to playoffs in all the Major League Sports also are accustomed to having one big game at the end of the season.
Still, there are notable adherents of the single-table. Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley was aware that a lot of things, including the weather, would have to be adjusted for his preferred system to become standard.
“In a perfect role, I’d be one who would love to have a single table,” he admitted.
Bradley listed off the needed modifications MLS would have to make.
“That would mean that we can’t have the schedule that we have. You can’t have a single table and have games that many games where you’re missing players, because every game is going to count for who is a champion at the end. You almost have to be on an international schedule. In terms of being on an international schedule, we have work to do in terms of building more stadiums. We have work to do in terms of how to play games when the weather is cold in certain cities.”
I have to point out that while Chicago in the prime of summer is muggy and hot, the winters are not for the fainthearted. It’s difficult to imagine games there during that season, especially since no soccer stadium in the U.S. has a full roof.
With time, though, Bradley believed his plan was possible.
“For me, the ideal answer is down the road – where we have more teams, a single table, our own stadiums and we can figure out what to do when the weather’s cold and we’re on an international schedule. That will solve a lot of things. But that’s a work in progress.”
Yet it is difficult to imagine that years from now, MLS would throw what would by then be an established playoff tradition to the wind simply to be more like Europe. It’s definitely possible, though, so single-table fans can hold out hope.
Perhaps it’s all something of a distraction from the heart of issue, though. Maybe it’s easy to blame the system rather than admit where a team wilted.
Frank Yallop played for years under a single-table structure in Ipswich Town, but he adjusted to coaching MLS teams to the championship title under the playoff system. His view was that the structure was less important than a team’s response to it.
“We all know at the beginning of the season how it works,” he pointed out. “Everyone has to play under those same expectations. You either do it, or you don’t.”


Anonymous said...

If we have to have playoffs-- the current system has to go. DC has the best record but had to play the #7 seed on the road just 5 days after the end of the season. There should be more reward for winning the season ( I could also just be bitter)

Tony in Quakeland said...

The idea of playoffs is fine b me, although I would like to see a real advantage given for winning the division - perhaps a first round bye. I'd also like to see the away goals rule. That way the higher ranked team can get a real advantage by scoring in the other team's stadium.

But most of all, I would like to see the Supporter Shield held in near equal value to the MLS Cup. That way the regular season "counts" and the playoffs count.