The MLS Cup Playoffs are often derided as being a bit of a crapshoot. Heck, I've made that accusation myself at various times. But, believe it or not, most of the time a relatively worthy champion is crowned.
No, it's not always the best team. (In fact, the MLS Cup has been won just five times by the team with the best regular-season record and only one of those times has come since the league scrapped the best-of-three format it used pre-2003.) But the champion is rarely a legitimately bad team, assuming we can all agree that a negative goal-difference equates to a "legitimately bad team."
The average goal-difference among the 15 previous MLS Cup champions is 11.8 and the 2005 Los Angeles Galaxy remain the only team in history to go on to win the championship after posting a negative goal-difference during the regular season. Even if we only look at the champions of the post-2002 era of the playoffs, the average goal-difference remains a perfectly respectable 8.5.
Yes, it's true, the last two champions were among the last teams to qualify for the playoffs. But the 2010 Colorado Rapids actually had a better goal-difference than (+12) than seven previous champions and the 2009 Real Salt Lake team wasn't bad either (+8). Aside from the 2005 Galaxy, just three other teams with negative goal-differences have advanced to the MLS Cup final with the most recent being the 2008 New York Red Bulls.
Basically, this is all just a long way of saying history is not on the side of the Columbus Crew, the only team to enter the 2011 playoffs with a negative goal-difference (-1).
Not to pick on the Crew too much (as I did earlier this year), but there's really nothing about them that suggest they are capable of a lengthy playoff run. That they now have one more round to navigate does not work in their favor either.
As bad as the numbers made the Galaxy look in 2005, they really weren't that bad of a team. They were led by none other than Landon Donovan, who scored 16 goals and had 12 assists that year. Cobi Jones was still hanging around. Jovan Kirovski wasn't yet a washed up afterthought. Herculez Gomez scored 12 goals for that team. Kevin Hartman was their goalkeeper. These were some of the better players in the league at the time.
The Crew aren't without interesting players, but none of them are the kind you expect to put a team on their back and carry them to history. Andres Mendoza has 13 goals, but just eight of them have come from the run of play. Emilio Renteria has eight goals but he's such a defensive liability that he started fewer than half of his team's games. Eddie Gaven is the only other player on the team with as many as five goals, and does anybody really imagine him carrying a team? Only two teams in the entire league scored fewer than their 34 non-PK goals.
They aren't even that good of a defensive team. None of the 10 playoff teams allowed more than their 44 goals. Robert Warzycha deserves some credit for turning one of the more talent deficient teams in the league into one capable of beating Real Salt Lake twice, but let's not pretend that he performed a miracle either.
If you're still wondering why people were not particularly happy about the playoffs being expanded this year, the Crew are Exhibit A. Under the old eight-team playoff format, they would have been left out of the playoffs and we wouldn't be left worrying what kind of message it sends our children that a team can play as bad as the Crew and still have a chance at being crowned champion.
The saving grace to the new playoff format is that it at least forces the wild-card teams to play an extra midweek game prior to the conference semifinals where they would then face one of the two top seeds. In the Crew's case, this midweek affair is on the road against the Rapids. Forecasts suggest temperatures below freezing at game time with the possibility of snow.
This was also basically the situation last year when these teams faced off in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Rapids managed to win their home leg 1-0 before beating the Crew in a penalty shootout to advance to the conference finals.
Let's be honest, this is about as far from a marquee matchup as the league could have dreamed up. It will be the only game of the entire playoffs that won't be aired nationally and there's a good chance that this will be the lowest attended game of the postseason. But one of these teams will move onto the conference finals, it may as well be the one that has played well enough to kind of deserve it.
For more on the MLS Cup playoffs, be sure to check out SB Nation Soccer. For all your Crew news and updates, be sure to check out Massive Report. For the latest and greatest on the Rapids, visit Burgundy Wave.