Hi everybody. My name is Zach, and I hate the MLS Playoffs.
I already feel better having gotten that off my chest because it's been bothering me of late. To be honest, it bothers me every year, but I have a platform to write about it now and dag gummit, that's what I'm gonna do!
Now before you scroll down to the comment section and immediately begin writing a scathing response to my opening line, I beseech you to at least hear me out. Chances are you're not going to agree with me, but I have my reasons and what you'll hopefully discover is that, while I hate the playoffs, I've come to accept them.
In an attempt to give this post a little more context, let me first explain that I'm a Houston Dynamo fan and I work as one of the managing editors for Dynamo Theory. A lot of you might already know this, but I just wanted to get this out there because I think this adds an interesting angle to my feelings.
There's little doubt that the MLS playoff structure benefits the Dynamo as much or more than any other team in the league. Head coach Dominic Kinnear is the master of the knockout tournament, understanding how to set-up, motivate and guide his team through the treacherous playoff waters.
In his first year as head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes in 2005, he underachieved. His Supporters' Shield-winning side fell in the quarterfinals, but lessons were learned. After the franchise moved to Houston at the end of that year, he put what he'd learned to use and promptly led the Dynamo to two straight MLS Cup titles. Since then, he's guided the team to two more appearances in the final (including this year), a conference final loss to the Galaxy in 2009 and disappointing collapse against the New York Red Bulls in quarterfinals in 2008.
There's really no reason to re-hash all of Kinnear's accomplishments, just understand that he's probably the best playoff/tournament coach in the league. His team's are known for doing enough in the regular season to get themselves in the postseason before slowly picking apart their competition, often teams who had better records during the season.
If the playoffs didn't exist, Houston might have no championships to this day. Sure, things would have been different; Kinnear would have played a different style and likely pushed his team differently, without a doubt. But based on the pure regular season results, they were never the best team.
That is the team I support and the coach I support. Despite that fact, I still hate the playoffs, and I explained all of that to help you realize that I'm not just a fan of a team that fails in the playoffs complaining about the system.
First off, playoffs can have a good role in the sport of soccer. See how they are used in various leagues around the world to determine the final team to earn promotion. Knockout-style tournaments are fine too, I like them, but they are not used to determine league champions.
In America, we are conditioned to both accept and love the idea of playoffs. We've all been raised on a steady diet of playoffs in virtually every sport we have available to us. Baseball, football, basketball and hockey all have and celebrate the playoffs as their way to crowning their champion. All those leagues play absurdly long regular seasons just to determine playoff seeding. Americans love playoffs so much that even NASCAR has developed a playoff-type system to determine their champion.
For some reason we just can't wrap our heads around the idea that the best team at the end of the season should be the champion.
There are reasons for this of course. Major and collegiate sports leagues have a ton of teams spread out across the continent broken in to conferences and divisions. Teams play overloaded schedules focusing on their divisions and conferences thus making the idea of a "single table champion" unrealistic ... and that's fine, it works. The NCAA men's and women's Division I basketball tournaments work because it's impossible for every team to play the same schedule, so a knockout tournament is the best way to crown a champion.
The problem I have is that the idea of playoffs have been shoved down our throats by MLS as a way to appeal to the American sports audience. When the league was formed, they tinkered with all sorts of rules in an attempt to make the sport of soccer more appealing to the sporting masses. Over the years, nearly all of those odd rules faded away and we're left with the sport of soccer played by the same rules we see in leagues around the world. MLS realized that in the end, people would grow to appreciate the game more if they allowed the league to just play the game.
However, the playoffs have survived as one last holdover from an attempt to make MLS something more interesting to the general sporting public. It's been a part of the league so long, I expect it'll never go away, and that sucks. I've accepted it, but it sucks.
The reason it sucks is simple: soccer doesn't need playoffs.
In leagues with 18-20 teams, there's simply no need for a knockout tournament at the end of the season. All of the teams can play each either other twice a season, home and away, and it's fair to name the team with the best record as the champion at the conclusion of a schedule like that. It just works and it just makes sense. Soccer fans -- billions of them -- get it, but MLS doesn't. MLS feels it needs to do something different, or that their system is better*.
*Or they just like the idea of a few more games to increase revenue.
It probably has a lot to do with television as well, since we all know how much networks love their big moments and events. Having an MLS Cup Final gives the league a showcase event to market around, but does it really need that? Shouldn't the regular season, what should be a fair and balanced single table war to determine a champion, be enough?
Naysayers will scream that the lack of a promotion and relegation system would lead to a majority of teams not having anything to play for late in the season, and that's a fair point. However, there are a ton of teams in all the other major leagues that have 'nothing to play for' at the end of the season, and they magically end up putting forth serious effort in their final matches. I'm not going to convince the hardcore defenders of the playoffs to change their minds, but I'm hoping they at least see my point.
MLS could be something different. It could embrace the rebel and outlaw mentality of it's hardcore supporters and shove conventionality in the face. They won't though, because they refuse to break away from the idea that a sports league in America needs playoffs. They like the added attention they get during the playoffs (small though it might be) and get so wrapped up in them that they've never even tried to just market the merits of the sport and a well-designed regular season.
Despite the fact the rules change virtually every year to fix the problems that previous rule changes have created, they will march forth with their system. Even though the MLS Cup Final features the No. 8 and No. 9 seeded teams, this is the system that makes sense for the minds that run MLS, because they're minds that were created by the traditional American sports structure.
So, I have no choice but to accept the playoffs, and I have. I'll still watch and still enjoy seeing my team show everyone else how to be successful at them, but I don't have to like it.
I'd rather see the league challenge conventions and dare to be something different than what is already out there in the United States. Give sports fans an opportunity to see the merits of a regular season that means everything and determines the champion. I'd be willing to sacrifice a system that so obviously benefits the team I support because I firmly believe that eliminating the playoffs could create something even more special.
Sorry if I'm being unreasonable, but I dare to dream of a day when MLS finally realizes that it doesn't need the anchor that is an archaic and unnecessary American sports tradition dragging it down. After all, the average American sports fan hasn't accepted MLS despite all it's attempts to make the sport of soccer more like what they're used to. At this point, why not be brave and dare to be different?
You never know, people just might like what they see.