Wednesday, March 2, 2011

MLS Playoffs

Major League Soccer this week announced a new playoff system for 2011. To understand the changes and why they were made, we first have to understand the somewhat confusing and unwieldy system in use last year.

MLS is divided into two regional conferences, East and West. The conferences have absolutely no effect on the league season; each team plays home-and-home against every other team, regardless of conference. What they do affect is who gets into the playoffs and who they play.
The 2010 playoffs consisted of a four-team Eastern Conference championship and a four-team Western Conference championship. The winners met in the final. The top two teams in each conference made the playoffs, plus the next four best teams in either conference. If one conference had more teams qualify, the weakest teams from that conference were shipped over to the other conference playoff.

If you think that sounds like it might bring some strange combinations, you're right. Take a look at what happened in 2010, when six teams qualified from the West and only the minimum two from the East:
Here are the eight playoff qualifiers in order of their finish in the league season (conference in parentheses):

1. Los Angeles (W)
2. Salt Lake City (W)
3. Red Bull "New York" (E)
4. Dallas (W)
5. Columbus (E)
6. Seattle (W)
7. Colorado (W)
8. San Jose (W)

By rule, Colorado and San Jose, as the weakest West teams, were sent East.
And so the pairings looked like this:

1 L.A - 6 Seattle
2 Salt Lake - 4 Dallas

3 Red Bull - 8 San Jose
5 Columbus - 7 Colorado

There is a whole world of unfairness here. The two best teams have been given tougher games than the third place team, and then might have to meet each other in the semifinal. San Jose and Colorado are the weakest teams, but get an easier road to the final than the team ranked just above them, Seattle.
Worst of all are the comparative fates of Dallas and Columbus. Dallas finished higher, but must play the No. 2 seed (and then potentially the No.1), while Columbus gets the No. 7!
As it happened, Salt Lake City advanced from the West, while the "Eastern" champion was Colorado.

And it wasn't just 2010 that was geographically challenged. In 2009, the Eastern champion was Salt Lake City, and in 2008 Red Bull New York won the West.

Let's take a look at the 2011 system and see if it improves things.
The conferences will remain, but this time three teams from each will advance automatically. The next four best teams regardless of conference will also advance.
The first round will feature only those four wild card teams in single games: The two wild cards with better records get to be the hosts.
Then the playoffs proper will  look like this:

E1 (the top east team)  - wild card winner
E2 - E3

W1 - wild card winner
W2 - W3

The wild card winners are not entered into a conference playoff based on geography. Instead, whichever team -- E1 or W1 -- has the best record in the league gets to play the wild card winner with the worst record. So, via the wild card, New England, say, might still win the West, or Los Angeles the East.

There are logical reasons for many of the things M.L.S. does differently. You may not like playoffs deciding the champion, the salary cap, limits on foreigners, and no relegation, but there is a legitimate business or sporting reason for each of them.
But conferences? The only reasons for their existence that FRB can think of are that American fans of other sports are used to them, and that it might sound bad if you had to say that your team finished, say, 15th or 18th.

The solutions to life's problems are usually complicated. This one is simple. Dump the conferences and have the top 8 (or 10) teams make the playoffs.

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