By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Oct 5, 2018) US Soccer Players - After 162 games played across six months, the Major League Baseball season comes down to a single game for four teams across the two leagues. It’s called the Wild Card Game and it’s a do-or-die, winner-moves-on, 9-inning or more competition that can end an otherwise successful year in the span of a few hours. It’s intense and reductive, and for some baseball fans, perfect.
For others, the Wild Card Game is a ridiculous way to decide anything. The baseball regular season is long and arduous. To advance a team because of one single contest runs counter to the very spirit of the sport.
Major League Soccer has its own version of the Wild Card Game, a pair of first-round matches in each conference that pits the third seed against the sixth and the fourth against the fifth. The higher seed gets home field advantage.
After the 34 games over eight months, the knockout round of the MLS playoffs might also seem like a cruel and capricious way to decide who moves into the conference semifinal round of the postseason. Ninety minutes, with extra time and penalties a possibility, will send one team through while simultaneously closing the book on a team that played well enough in those 34 games to finish in the top six of the conference.
Is it fair? Or maybe the better question is, does it matter if it’s fair?
The MLS playoff structure, much like that of Major League Baseball, can seem arbitrarily chosen. The single-game knockout round is just one quirk of the format. Once past the first round, the MLS Cup playoffs suddenly move to a home-and-home two-game series setup for both the conference semifinals and conference finals. Once we get the two conference winners, the format shifts back to single-elimination. The higher point-winner during the regular season hosts the other conference champions in a winner-take-all cup final.
As the 2018 MLS Cup playoffs approach and with the MLB Wild Card rounds captivating American sports fans, it’s worth asking not just whether any or all of the format is “fair”, but whether it’s the most potentially exciting way to crown a champion. Here’s what Kansas City Star writer Sam McDowell tweeted about single-game elimination playoffs:
The MLS playoffs should take a lesson from these wild-card, winner-take-all games. They could generate this same drama if they made it a single-elimination draw. Get rid of the home-and-home.— Sam McDowell (@SamMcDowell11) October 3, 2018
“Drama” is desirable as a part of the MLS Cup playoffs in part because it would conceivably bring more attention to the league. What might get lost in the quest for more drama is the competitive balance along with the notion of what’s “fair”. For MLS, there’s also the risk of simply sprinting through the postseason too quickly. If all of the playoff rounds where single-elimination, the sum total of the playoffs with the current 12-team playoff structure would constitute 11 games.
As it stands, the MLS playoff season involves 17 games played through October, November, and into December. The two-game series at the conference semifinal and conference final stage means the process has to pause for the November FIFA international window. It’s a momentum-arresting break that doesn’t help enthusiasm, regardless of the bonus home date playoff teams get. That's the presumed and oft-reported reason MLS uses two games and aggregate scores to whittle the field to two finalists.
We can say this about the knockout round games: Teams want to avoid them at all costs. If they do find themselves in a single-game elimination battle, they want to be playing at home.
We already know that Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls will take the automatic spots in the East. The gap is too wide for anyone to catch them. If the season ended today, NYCFC would host a knockout round game thanks to their 3rd-place position. That’s not a small thing since the Bronx club is overwhelmingly better at home than on the road.
NYCFC has just one loss at Yankee Stadium in 2018 with one home game left. Against Montreal, the club sitting in sixth would face NYCFC in the knockout round match, NYCFC is 1-0-1. The New Yorkers handed the Impact 3-0 at Yankee Stadium back on July 11 and played them to a 1-1 draw in Montreal on September 22.
DC United could end up being NYCFC's problem, passing Montreal for the final playoff spot. United took a point in the Bronx just a month ago. The two clubs will play in the penultimate week of the season, potentially previewing the playoff clash.
Should the standings hold, Columbus would host Philadelphia in the East’s other knockout round matchup. A point separates the two teams in the standings and they have the same number of games left to play. Columbus has an edge when it comes to the strength of their remaining scheduled, meaning it's easier. It seems very possible the two will get together at MAPFRE Stadium on either October 31 or November 1.
The Crew has a slim edge on Philadelphia in the three-game season series that includes two draws, winning a 1-0 decision back in May. The two played to a goalless draw in Columbus last week, with neither side creating solid chances amidst a tense, playoff-like atmosphere. A fourth game between the pair is guaranteed to be just as cagey.
The Western Conference is still shaking out the playoff seeding, with ten points separating first from seventh. The race for the sixth spot comes mostly down to the Galaxy’s ability to chase down one of the two or three teams immediately above them. For the moment, it’s Real Salt Lake that sits in sixth, Seattle who occupies fifth, and the Timbers who hold 4th-place. The knockout round matchups if the standings hold look like this: LAFC hosting Real Salt Lake and the Timbers hosting the Sounders.
A do-or-die single-elimination game between the Cascadia clubs stands out. While the Sounders' famously poor first half of the season grabbed headlines, the Timbers made news of their own with a fifteen-game unbeaten run. Included in that stretch were two wins over their hated rivals, a 1-0 victory at Providence Park in May and a 3-2 victory at Century Link Field on the last day of June.
The Timbers have lost just twice in Portland this year, but one of those losses came in their third match of the season against Seattle. The Sounder prevailed on August 26 by a 1-0 scoreline, with the winning tally coming from a Julio Cascante own-goal.
LAFC versus RSL might not have the same whiff of rivalry, but it could be a fascinating matchup nonetheless. The expansion side, looking to match Atlanta United’s achievement of reaching the postseason in their first season, would like to do one better than Atlanta by winning a playoff game. That hasn't happened since 1998.
Real Salt Lake is trying to turn a youth movement into a deep playoff run. Across this lineup, head coach Mike Petke has relied on young and/or homegrown talent to power the team to playoff contention. 24-year old Czech playmaker Albert Rusnak is the leading creative force, but 21-year old Jefferson Savarino and rookie Corey Baird also play significant roles. At the back, 21-year olds Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, and Brooks Lennon are fixtures.
Going on the road in the playoffs to play in front of a hostile Banc of California Stadium crowd will be a test for the young group if an LAFC vs RSL knockout round game comes to pass.
More From Jason Davis:
- Reggie Cannon and Ben Sweat take different routes to a USMNT call
- An MLS playoff reality check
- Vancouver makes an unexpected move
- Streaks, VAR, and pressure in MLS
Photo by Michel Janosz - ISIPhotos.com