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How well did Major League Soccer’s format work in 2013? Few qualms with this year’s results

Dec 3, 2013, 11:05 PM EDT

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One of the themes of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber’s Tuesday State of the League address was competitiveness. The league, he said, wanted to be the most competitive in the world. What exactly that means, we’ll wait for another time to nail down, but the Commissioner did point out that five teams finished within six points of the league’s regular season title. From MLS’s point of view, it’s a pretty safe assumption parity is a highly desired quality when assessing competitiveness.

In a league like that, playoffs are almost obligatory, with a 34-game regular season unlikely to be enough to distinguish squads being pulled toward the mean. But given most of the world persists without crowning champions through postseasons, it’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer’s system worked. After a regular season and three rounds of playoffs, has the competition format done a good job of identifying the two teams that should be competing for this year’s title?

That is, after all, what this is all about, right? Sure, you need to play enough games to pay for the whole thing, but ultimately a league needs to have a credible competition. It needs to have a format where the best teams are rewarded; else, it becomes pretty difficult for people to buy into your league.

It’s one thing to have a number of teams capable of competing for a title, or even have the occasional shock winner. It’s something entirely different to be perceived as a place where champions might as well be drawn out of a hat, with too many teams having a shot-in-the-dark chance of claiming a championship.

MLS seemed to be approaching that in 2009 and 2010, when two Western Conference teams played their way through the East before claiming MLS Cup. The league’s subsequent tweaks have helped with that perception. There’s no more conference crossover. Now, the top five teams from each conference make the postseason, never mind that a sixth place team might be better than a higher finisher from the other conference. The schedule, an equitable double round robin, is now unbalanced, so teams play more games within their conference. Instead of MLS Cup final at a predetermined site, the finalist with the best regular season point total hosts the game.

source: Getty Images

Matt Besler, seen here on international duty with the United States, missed 11 game this year for a Sporting Kansas City team that fell one point short of the Supporters’ Shield. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Having a playoff system means you don’t need to answer those questions. Teams just need to make the playoffs, and although the whole thing kind of goes awry when a low-finishing hot hand blazes through the postseason (rendering the bulk of the season meaningless), everything looks great when you get to the end and two proven contenders are fighting for the league title.

In that respect, this year’s competition format worked. The best teams not only qualified for the playoffs but they didn’t cruise through the regular season. At year’s end, two teams firmly ensconced in the “who’s the best team” debate are competing for the final. What more could you ask for?

Perhaps a better way of settling home field advantage for MLS Cup? With an unbalanced regular season schedule, awarding home field to the highest point getter is only truly fair when the quality conferences are balanced. Right now, they’re not. In time the East may improve, but right now, there’s little question the West is the stronger conference, and because Real Salt Lake played more games against that tougher circuit, they finished two points short of Sporting Kansas City. The Eastern Conference champions aren’t hosting Saturday’s game because they were the better team through the end of October. They’re hosting because MLS gave them an easier schedule.

The most-obvious solution is to alternate which conference hosts MLS Cup finals. Recognizing that the unbalanced schedule is both beneficial (in terms of travel, building rivalries, and the other reasons why MLS implemented it in the first place) and makes it impossible to meaningfully compare the records of teams from different conferences, the league should simply switch off. In even-numbered years, one conference hosts the game. In odd number years, it goes the other way. MLS would avoid the problems for the previous format (potentially having a neutral’s atmosphere when fans are such an important selling point for the league) while avoiding the issue introduced by the unbalanced regular season schedule.

Think about how well this would have worked in 2011 and 2012. Instead of two games in Los Angeles between the Galaxy and Dynamo, we would have had one in Carson, the other in Houston. While you could argue the Dynamo didn’t deserve to host either of those games, Los Angeles didn’t exactly plow through the regular season in 2012. If they would have travelled to BBVA Compass last year, few would have complained.

But as far as 2013 is concerned, the qualms about home field and MLS Cup are a relatively minor concerns – the type of wrinkle you’d expect from an 18-year-old league still playing trial-and-error with its rules. If we’re worried about whether home field is decided in a fair way come the season’s last game, we should probably move away from the current system. Otherwise, 2013’s been a pretty good once for MLS’s competition format.

  1. hildezero - Dec 4, 2013 at 12:02 AM

    In a year from now, MLS will be better.

  2. dfstell - Dec 4, 2013 at 7:58 AM

    The only real quibble I have with the playoffs this year is that I don’t understand the point of playing home/away for every other round and then making your final a one-time affair. I guess that’s how Champions League works and it works for them.

    My bigger problem with our playoffs is more down to the competitive structure of MLS itself. I just never feel like anyone separates themselves in the playoffs where you go, “WOW. That team dominated. They deserve to be called CHAMPIONS.” I feel like its more a bunch of roughly even teams play and based on match-ups and random events, someone prevails.

    For example, I know RSL beat LAG, but I’m not sure that I was convinced that RSL was the superior team. They looked about even. LAG didn’t finish their chances at home and couldn’t figure out how to deal with the wind on set-pieces… RSL advances. Mind you, I’m not saying LAG were better. I’m just saying they were about the same.

    Compare that to a two-legged series like last year’s Bayern v. Barcelona Champions League encounter. Bayern killed Barca. Nobody was saying, “Oh….they only won because Barca didn’t finish their chances…” Bayern killed them and proved they were better.

    That’s where I still think MLS falls down as a league. I know the goal is competitive balance. But even in the NFL which is the model for competitive balance, you have teams that go 14-2, 13-3, 12-4 and do it for few years in a row before having to rebuild. When those top teams play the 8-8 teams, they smash their skulls in 28-0. When they play the 2-14 teams, they beat them 49-3. My point is, that although the teams DO rotate who is the best, when they play a game, the result is eff-ing decisive.

    I’d like it if MLS where able to figure out a system where teams could build up a dynasty. I’m not saying that we build Manchester United where there are haves and have-nots, but build a system where a well-run franchise like the New England Patriots can be elite for a long time. Or other teams can draft a good quarterback and have a nice 2-4 year run of domination. Then they fall back and someone else gets to be good for a few years.

    I feel like MLS is designed so the “elite” teams go 9-7 (in NFL parlance) and nobody is markedly “the Best”.

    • mlsconvert88888 - Dec 4, 2013 at 12:43 PM

      I get what you’re saying but to a certain extent I think you are overstating the dominance of the perennial NFL contenders. A team may go 14-2, but they aren’t gonna do it by blowing out every lesser team; see the 2013 match up between the Broncos and the Jaguars.

      For me, parity is key to keeping the league interesting, which in turn is key to it’s growth. If the competitive balance gets too far out of whack, fan bases of the weaker teams can crumble and hurt the entire league by killing attendance and TV averages. Pretty much exactly what is happening in Chivas USA right now.

    • charliej11 - Dec 4, 2013 at 1:49 PM

      If someone can whine about the games and season being to close, which you just did…..

      Then I don’t think we can go any lower in the whining scale. Really. What else can top, your league is too competitive and the games are too close ?

      Complaining the playoffs are not boring…

      • charliej11 - Dec 4, 2013 at 1:52 PM

        too close

    • talgrath - Dec 4, 2013 at 3:12 PM

      The NFL has upsets all the time though and near misses too. The Seahawks (11-1), currently the top team by record (and on most power rankings) in the NFL are a team that struggled to beat St. Louis (currently 5-7) in St. Louis and they nearly lost to the then winless Buccaneers (currently 3-9). Seattle’s one loss this season came from an away game to the Indianapolis Colts, who were then smashed by the St. Louis Rams a couple of weeks later. Every team knows that “on any given Sunday” you could lose when you’re expected to win or win when you are expected to lose; that’s how parity works. There’s even a “Circle of parity” that shows that everyone has beaten someone that beat someone else. Very rarely are games a blowout in the NFL or MLS, and that’s the way I prefer it. It’s very boring to see a team just get pounded into the dirt with no chance.

  3. player169 - Dec 4, 2013 at 9:06 AM

    Dfstell, addressing your dynasty point, I get what you’re saying, but when you look at teams like LA, Seattle, KC, & Houston who are in the mix every year for a title…isn’t that pretty close to your Patriots example. There is something to be said for being in the mix every year given the same restrictions every other team deals with too. If I was a fan of a team that isn’t in it every year I would be happy that my team would always have a chance to be a playoff team given the balance. It makes for excitement in my book. I look at the game in KC and I don’t think it is a lock by any means…that’s the way it should be. Occasionally you’ll have teams that separate in a year (example: San Jose) and they get their trophy, but in order to get both you still have to prove it in the playoffs. Kind of rambling here…I like the way MLS is set up and not the way La Liga and to a lessor extent the EPL is set up…

    • charliej11 - Dec 4, 2013 at 1:51 PM

      I get the feeling that all the people that whine about MLS…..would be whining about any league they blog about.

      IF we are now whining about the league being too exciting, there is nothing left.

      It would be impossible to believe that someone down that far would then NOT whine about the same team winning every year.

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