Once upon a time, in the dark days of Major League Soccer, a team finished atop the Eastern Conference's regular-season standings with just 38 points and a 0 goal-difference. That team eventually advanced all the way to the MLS Cup final. It was not exactly the best advertisement for the league.
But the 2002 New England Revolution accomplished all of that in a 10-team league that allowed eight teams into the playoffs. MLS has come a long way since then, right?
Unfortunately, the main culprit behind the Revolution's rather ugly bit of accomplishment was the conference structure. A feature of the league that still manages to exist, allowing situations like this to occasionally rear their ugly heads.
Once again, we are faced with a very similar situation: If the MLS season ended today, the Columbus Crew would be the Eastern Conference's top team despite claiming just 41 points in 29 games, a points per match (1.41) only marginally better than the '02 Revs (1.36). Even worse, this year's Crew have a -2 goal-difference. Taken together, there's a pretty strong argument to be made that this year's Crew team is on pace to become the worst team to ever earn a No. 1 seeding in the playoffs.
To be fair, there are still about six weeks left in the MLS season and a lot can change in that time. The Crew could put together a few solid weeks, move that goal-difference to the positive side and improve their PPM to a more respectable level. The Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City, both of whom already have positive goal-differences, could surge ahead of the Crew and make this a far less compelling argument. Who knows, maybe DC United or the New York Red Bulls are even able to put runs together.
Right now, though, it's not looking good, and it goes well beyond PPM and GD.
Bad by any measure
Even if the Crew improve, they are still on pace to finish with a worse PPM than every single playoff team of a year ago (1.50). They would also have a worse GD than every playoff team of a year ago (no team was worse than +1). Suffice it to say, that has never happened.
The picture does not get much better when we compare the Crew to their contemporaries. As of right now, they are 17 points worse than the current leader in the Supporters' Shield race. Only one other conference winner in the league's 16-year history has ever finished as far 10 points behind the Shield winner. Prior to this year, that '02 Revs team held the record at 13 points. Even if we account for the different number of games played, this Crew team is still significantly farther behind the Shield winner (.59) than any other previous conference winner ('02 Revs: .46).
It looks even worse if you look at goal-difference. The Crew are 23 goals worse than the Galaxy right now. Just four other conference winners have been as many as 10 goals worse than the league leaders. As it stands now, the gap between the Galaxy and the Crew is twice as big as any other gap between a Shield winner and the other conference winner. The Crew's goal-difference is worse than 10 other teams in the league this year, something no previous conference winner can come close to equalling.
Say what you will about that '02 Revs team, but they at least had some iconic players. Taylor Twellman scored 25 goals that year. Steve Ralston led the league with 19 assists. Goalkeeper Adin Brown was one of the league's top shot stoppers, with a league-best 1.05 goals against average.
This year's Crew team has no such star power. Their Designated Player, Andres Mendoza, has a strained relationship with the club's supporters, mainly stemming from an incident in which he refused to let Jeff Cunningham take a penalty. Robbie Rogers, arguably the team's most talented player, is having another disappointing season. A defense that was once one of the league's best is now ranked just seventh in goals allowed after a four match-run in which they've been outscored 13-6.
Even their feel-good moment of the year -- Cunningham setting the MLS all-time goals-scored record -- was pretty much ruined by the fact that it came during a 6-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders.
It also doesn't help their perception that the team is verging on insignificant in its own market. For all the barbs probably thrown the Revs' way, they were among the better supported teams in 2002, averaging more than 16,000 fans per game. This year, the Crew are the worst supported team in the league, averaging 11,500 fans per game. Even the San Jose Earthquakes, whose home stadium is a dilapidated former college baseball field and barely fits 10,500 people, have averaged more fans.
Of course, this is not all the Crew's fault. The Crew are merely taking advantage of the situation. They aren't the problem, per se, it's the system.
While the league office trumpets the excitement that their new 10-team playoff field has helped inject into the end of the season, the reality is that bad teams will continue to be rewarded as long as there is a geographical conference system.
Making matters worse, is that the Crew could continue to back their way into the No. 1 seeding in the East and then ride that to the MLS Cup. The Crew will be awarded an arguably easier path to the championship game than even the Shield winners. While the Galaxy will have to contend with a side of the playoff bracket that will include at least two of the Sounders, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake, the Crew's bracket might not include a single team that finished in the top 5 of the overall points table.
You'd like to think that a better team would eventually knock the Crew off, but the crap-shoot nature of the playoffs makes that considerably less than guaranteed.