MLS playoff schedule leaves much to be desired

Nov 13 2011 - 5:15pm

LOS ANGELES -- The ability to read a map must not be among the requirements to be a Major League Soccer executive. How else can you explain a playoff bracket that had the New York Red Bulls nearly landing a spot in last week's Western Conference final while Houston and Kansas City played for the Eastern Conference championship?

Geography, however, is the least of the problems plaguing the MLS' wacky and ever-changing postseason, which, since 2003, has featured the lowest-seeded playoff team winning the league title more often than the top-seeded team.

That won't happen this season, with the Galaxy, the league's winningest team, meeting Houston, the Eastern Conference regular-season runner-up, in next Sunday's MLS Cup at an expanded and already sold-out Home Depot Center. But that's about the only positive thing you can say about a playoff format that this year has been wrecked by a perfect storm of poor planning, insufficient reward and abysmal scheduling.

Which is why MLS Commissioner Don Garber promised last week that changes, they are a-coming.

Again.

The league's Board of Governors, which has changed the postseason structure three times in four seasons, is expected to vote Nov. 19 on yet another format.

And although Garber, the second commissioner in MLS history, said it's premature to talk about what the latest changes are likely to be, give the league credit for its willingness to keep addressing a playoff system so riven by chance it makes the seven-month regular season nearly inconsequential.

Consider the reward the Galaxy received for finishing with the league's best record: They got to host the conference final.

(And yes, they'll be playing the MLS Cup at home too, though that's by luck not design because the match was awarded to the Home Depot Center months ago.)

But that's it. That was the only prize. And to get there the Galaxy had to open the playoffs on the road, playing twice in five days while making three cross-country flights. The MLS, by the way, is the only pro league that requires its top-seeded team to begin the postseason on the road.

"Candidly, I think it's a little bit of a mess and it needs to be addressed, and I'm hopeful that there's a lot more player input," Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said. "If you play 34 games and finish with 67 points, I think there should be a little more advantage than playing home and away to go to the next round."

The Board of Governors apparently agrees, because one change that probably will be approved would scrap the current NFL-style policy of pre-selecting the MLS Cup site, instead awarding home-field advantage for the championship game to the finalist with the best regular-season record.

Which brings us to another inconsistency in the format. The conference semifinals are a two-leg series determined by aggregate goals. That not only gives each club the opportunity to play a postseason game at home, but also allows teams a chance to overcome a bad break or a poor performance. Call it a playoff mulligan.

But then the format changes for the conference final, which is a one-game, winner-take-all affair in which overtime or, if necessary, a penalty-kick shootout, sometimes determines the winner. Most other leagues that have playoff or cup competitions, such as the European Champions League on the CONCACAF Champions League, play a two-match home-and-home competition up to the final.

That MLS system arguably makes the postseason a more wide-open competition -- but it does so by robbing the regular season of much of its significance. Two years ago, for instance, Real Salt Lake finished the regular season with a losing record but won the MLS Cup on penalty kicks. And four years before that, the Galaxy won the title after finishing .500 in the regular season.

This year those flaws were compounded by a schedule that squeezed 12 playoff games into a 12-day window, forcing three of the four conference finalists to play three times in eight days.

Then the Galaxy and Dynamo received an uncomfortably long two-week break before the MLS Cup championship game.

The MLS blames the scheduling problems on the international FIFA dates that bracket this weekend, with some national teams playing qualifying matches for the European Championships or World Cup while others have international friendlies scheduled.

But with a 34-match regular season that began in mid-March, MLS had ample opportunity to juggle the schedule and avoid the postseason train wreck it knew was coming. And it could have positioned the championship game on the Sunday before the FIFA dates rather than the Sunday after.

As it stands now, the Galaxy won't get striker Robbie Keane back from the Irish national team until three days before the Cup final. And the best they can hope for is that he comes back simply exhausted and not injured.

"The MLS has to address that," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. "Certainly with World Cup qualifiers and European qualification, it took precedence over our league schedule.

"The travel is difficult for these players. It's long travel. So it's going to be very challenging on any of the MLS players that are going to be participating in the MLS final."

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