Flaws in MLS playoff structure coming into focus

Sigi Schmid's Sounders could finish ahead of Dallas in the MLS playoffs ... but face a tougher road into MLS Cup 2011.

We always knew the flaws in Major League Soccer’s screwy new playoff structure would reveal themselves sooner or later. And sure enough, here they come.

All year, MLS teams have targeted those top three spots in each conference. The aim, of course, is to avoid the new play-in round, where four wild cards square off in a bid to join six automatic qualifiers. So everyone circled “top three” when they scribbled out their goals for the year.

But let’s think our way around this playoff chess board for a minute. If I am FC Dallas and currently sitting fourth in the West, I am exactly where I want to be. And that’s a problem for this new playoff structure.

Los Angeles is the best team in MLS. Bruce Arena’s men have been best all along and they deserve the Supporters Shield (and home field advantage through the playoffs) that’s now en route to the Home Depot Center. Behind the Galaxy, Seattle and Real Salt Lake are jostling for second and third. And in my estimation, those two (RSL and Seattle) are the second and third best sides now – not necessarily in that order.

Given Dallas’ recent fade and some injuries that need to heal, I don’t see the men of Pizza Hut Park moving up. But fret not, ye devotees of  FCD: it looks to me like fourth in the West is a better place to be.  In fact, it’s a jim-dandy place.

Let me ‘splain: As things are now, Dallas would host a play-in match against the league’s 10th best team. Yes, an extra match is an extra opportunity to lose. On the other hand, it’s a one-off at home against what is statistically the worst team in the playoffs. If Dallas wins, it would remain in the much more forgiving Eastern Conference bracket. (My man Daniel Robertson at BigDSoccer.com can expand on that just a little. Meanwhile, for more on MLS and a flawed system, read on ...)

The point here, while Real Salt Lake and Seattle pound on each other in the second round, Dallas would get a slightly easier time of things in a quarterfinal series. Remember, by my reckoning, Seattle and RSL are the second and third best teams in the league. So, how did we arrive at a place where one gets eliminated so quickly, while lesser lights burn on?

The screwy MLS post-season structure, that’s how.

Bottom line: there should never be a reward for finishing lower in the standings, but that’s what appears to be at work here.

Here’s another looming issue. Let’s say Dallas does go into the East. And let’s say Schellas Hyndman’s boys shake off the taxing summer, rediscover their mojo and win the darn thing. Meanwhile, what if Dynamo and the Red Bulls win the other play-in game? That puts them into the Western bracket. And what if they gain use of The Force or something, shock the Galaxy and win the darn thing?

Now wouldn’t that be a kick in the head? We’d have Western Conference Dallas representing the East in the MLS Cup, while a team from the Eastern Conference represents the West. Got it?

Remember last year when everyone got a chuckle at MLS expense because Colorado represented the Eastern Conference. Commissioner Don Garber, a little chagrinned, insisted that wouldn’t happen again. Only, it might. And it might be even worse this year.

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