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Why MLS teams are so desperate to avoid fourth- and fifth-place (with league playoff dates)

Oct 21, 2013, 10:10 PM EDT

MLS Cup trophy

We know for certain that teams can and have advanced out of the those yucky fourth- or fifth-place playoff spots, all the way to MLS Cup. Houston and Los Angeles did it last year, after all. So, case closed.

But that doesn’t make it the easier path, of course. And that certainly doesn’t mean any team wants to try it. Here is exactly why MLS players and managers are desperate to dodge fourth- and fifth-place, willing to lay a lot on the line to finish third, at worst, in the East or in the West:

Clearly, the most obvious answer is that an extra chance to lose is, well, just that … one extra chance to lose. Purely statistically speaking, a club with sights set on reaching the MLS Cup final sees its success percentages tumble with that additional round, that added opportunity to fail.

Past that, it’s all about the scheduling, which gets seriously jammed up for teams pushed into that early elimination contest.

Here is the playoff schedule:

  • Single-elimination games (4th vs. 5th place): Oct. 30-31 (Wed.-Thurs.)
  • Conference Semifinals, Leg 1: Nov. 2-3 (Sat.-Sun.)
  • Conference Semifinals, Leg 2: Nov. 6-7 (Wed.-Thurs.)
  • Conference Finals, Leg 1: Nov. 9-10 (Sat.-Sun.)
  • Conference Finals, Leg 2: Nov. 23-24 (Sat.-Sun.)
  • MLS Cup: Dec. 7 (Sat.)

So here’s what a potential bugger of a playoff schedule might look like for some club. We’ll use Seattle as an example, since the Sounders and their implausible tumble are topical:

Let’s say the SigiSounders cannot get a sufficient result this Sunday against Los Angeles. That’s a Sunday night match. Late Sunday, no less.

Sigi Schmid’s team (one without much playoff success as it is) might then have one day before traveling to Colorado (most likely, although it could be Los Angeles) for a mid-week match on Wednesday or Thursday.

If they survive, they would travel back home before a conference semifinal first leg contest on Saturday or Sunday, against a better-rested club. The conference semifinal second leg (more travel) then happens a few nights later, again on a Wednesday or Thursday. Add it up, counting that regular season finale, that’s now four matches in 12 days, with potentially significant travel between each stop.

(MORE: MLS Week in Review for Round 34)

By the way, that’s four matches in 12 days and counting. Because the conference final first legs are scheduled for Nov. 9 and 10. That could mean five matches in 15 days plus travel before a big (and quite quirky) break before the conference finals second leg.

One more thing, that additional match is one more chance to lose a player for the final to yellow card accumulation. And who wants to get all the way to MLS Cup – only to play without your top midfielder or your best center back or whatever?

  1. danielofthedale - Oct 21, 2013 at 10:30 PM

    Both MLS Cup teams last season played in the 4-5 Game last year if I remember right. So while it is not ideal its not a killing blow either.

  2. hildezero - Oct 22, 2013 at 1:25 AM

    Just reading this, pumps me up on the playoffs already! Damn. I can’t wait…

    • braxtonrob - Oct 22, 2013 at 2:51 AM

      I agree, I just remembered why the MLS playoffs are more exciting than ever.

  3. charliej11 - Oct 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM

    Someone other than Seattle has to have the Halloween game this time, so MLS can realize what an absolutely stupid idea it is, rather than really on the well it worked in Seattle in 2009 thought…..everything works in Seattle.

  4. socamr - Oct 22, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    Can’t believe MLS hasn’t fixed this RIDICULOUS playoff schedule: 3 games in 8 days, then a 2 week break between leg 1 and leg 2 of the conference finals – they did this last year too. The playoffs are supposed to be about the best teams playing at the best, not a war of attrition – it would be like the NFL putting the Conference championships on the Thursday night after the divisional playoffs.

    The one time all year they decide to honor FIFA dates, they make everything worse. With an extra week between leg 2 and MLS cup, there’s no reason not to simply hold the conference finals after the FIFA break, and that would allow them to spread out the semifinals. There’s no problem punishing the wild-card teams with short rest, but the remainder of the schedule is absurd.

  5. perrinbar - Oct 22, 2013 at 11:46 AM


    Even if Seattle loses on Sunday, Colorado needs a point to be 4th. So it’s actually possible that the Sounders wouldn’t have to travel at all for the play in game. If not particularly likely. It’s also true that if the Sounders draw, then Colorado has to win to host the play-in.

    Outside of that bit of added info, I agree with the premise here. Play-in game = do not want.

    • Steve Davis - Oct 22, 2013 at 12:53 PM

      Yeah, I tried to hedge things sufficiently, accounting for the various possibilities. That was just a “for instance.” There a bunch of different ways this could go in the East and West.

  6. mlsconvert88888 - Oct 22, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    So the point about the yellow cards is interesting. Someone help fill me in; does a player’s yellow card accumulation from the season carry into the play offs, or am I right in thinking it’s just like the Hex where everybody gets a clean start and if you get two yellows you need to serve a suspension?

    • talgrath - Oct 22, 2013 at 2:40 PM

      Yellow card suspensions do not carry into the playoffs, ted card and disciplinary suspensions from MLS do.

      • talgrath - Oct 22, 2013 at 2:40 PM

        Sorry, that should be “red card” suspensions, not “ted card” suspensions.

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