footy musings from a (relative) newbie

I am not ashamed to admit that I don’t always understand Major League Soccer’s (MLS) byzantine rules surrounding which teams get into the playoffs. I get that 10 teams – 5 each from the Eastern and Western conferences – qualify for the knockout tournament that is the road to MLS Cup, and…that’s pretty much where my understanding ends. This isn’t entirely my fault, as MLS seems to change the playoff entrance rules fairly frequently.

As a fairly new fan of soccer and MLS, the marriage of American sports’ playoff tradition with the beautiful game took some getting used to. I spent the early months of my soccer fandom following the European game, where league titles are decided by end-of-season point totals. When I started following MLS, the idea of deciding the league champion via playoffs seemed odd – even though I’d grown up surrounded by American sports’ playoff driven culture.

And as previously mentioned, it didn’t help that MLS was in the midst of changing the rules of the playoffs.

With that said, a part of me – I guess the part raised on NBA and Major League Baseball playoffs – embraced the American-ness of playoff soccer. Here was a good way to put an American stamp on the world’s most popular game, one that was far less obnoxious than some of the other ways MLS had tried to stamp “Made in the USA” on its growing but still young game.

Yet each year, when the playoffs roll around, I find myself feeling frustrated. I think it’s mostly because oftentimes, the team with the best regular season record rarely ends up in the title deciding game (see 2012 San Jose Earthquakes). Yes, the Supporters Shield winner gets a place in CONCACAF Champions League and the bragging rights of being Shield winners. But the fact that that’s all a team can achieve upon posting the best regular-season record makes the season seem meaningless.

There’s also the fact that I genuinely don’t understand how these playoff work – even after reading the league’s own website, the MLS Playoffs Wikipedia page and multiple blog posts on the subject.

I’m not sure what the solution is – or if having playoffs for MLS is even really a problem in need so solving (For various reasons, some, like this writer, think it is).

In the past, it’s been suggested that MLS move to a European model – i.e., allowing the end-of-season point total to determine the league champion – while still keeping MLS Cup as a separate competition similar to England’s League Cup (to go along with the U.S. Open Cup, our version of England’s legendary FA Cup).

That sounds like a plausible alternative, but I am not sure how it would work logistically. Would this mean going to a single league table (as is the custom in most of the world’s domestic leagues), and would that once again open up the promotion/regulation argument?

Not sure about the answers to any of these questions.

In any event, with the season winding down, the playoffs will soon be upon us. One team – the New York Red Bulls – has already qualified. More teams to follow in the coming weeks, but between now and whenever the playoffs begin, I can’t say I’ll have a better grasp of how they all got there.

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