New England Soccer Today

Casting a Wide Net

I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m pretty sure that when Don Garber gave the greenlight for the league’s current playoff system, he didn’t honestly envision that 17 teams would remain mathematically alive for the postseason on September 29th.

Think about that for a second. In addition to Seattle, Salt Lake, and Dallas, the five-win Revolution, six-win Toronto, and six-win San Jose, despite their horrid records and overwhelmingly disappointing form this season, are all eligible for the playoffs right now.

OK, so maybe Garber and the owner-investors didn’t plot the scenario that’s playing out before our very own eyes. Or maybe they did. After all, this is  an owner-investor league by definition. And the longer teams can stave off elimination, the greater the drama, however artificial or pre-packaged it may be.

But, that’s neither here nor there. Whether they truly anticipated this parity-happy hoedown, or whether this 17-team pack down the homestretch is the sum of zero foresight, the decision to expand the playoff pool to ten teams has led to a troubling development. A development that has all but stifled the quality of soccer we saw in MLS this summer.

That development in its crudest form? The dreaded draw. The suspect stalemate. The smooching of your sister. Whatever you call it, the expansion of the playoffs has undoubtedly helpded bump up the number of ties this season.

This year, 37% of all MLS games played to date have ended without a winner.  Chicago and New York have both shattered the MLS record for single-season draws, and Philadelphia isn’t far behind in the draw column. Oh, and there’s still time to pad that new record.

Why were there so many draws this summer? Well, here’s a thought: by throwing the playoff door wide open, the league effectively encouraged its clubs to play passive soccer this summer. Forget the win. Taking it a point at a time seemed to be the mantra for far too many teams.

Of course, it’s rare that a coach will openly admit to playing for the draw inside of league play. But actions always speak louder than words. The truth lies on the pitch, which is where too many teams have been content to settle for the handshake, especially the road club.

Now, some will say that the number of outside competitions – CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup, the World Football Challenge, and other friendlies – have also contributed to the jump in draws this year. And I get and accept that. I do. That probably factors into it as well.

But when two teams have drawn in more than half of their games, it goes beyond Champions League, Open Cup, and friendly fixtures. The root of the problem is that the value of a league win has plummeted. More teams are sending the message that the draw is perfectly OK, as evidenced by more draws and low goals per game (2.57 per game) and the majority of the league racking up double-digit draw totals.

The result? Every team but the Whitecaps remains eligible for the postseason. Everyone else can still dream a postseason dream, even the fifteen-draw Fire and Red Bulls, as well as the thirteen-draw ‘Quakes. Heck, even the last-place Revs, with less than a month left in season, can still say they’re in it.

And that’s exactly how a playoff race becomes a pathetic, season-ending rush of postseason wannabes. Not contenders. Poseurs. To think that a team like the Red Bulls, Union, or even the Fire can actually settle for stalemates so often and realistically clinch a playoff berth is the product of an artificially-sweetened playoff system. 

The path to the postseason shouldn’t be navigable. It should be challenging and treacherous. It shouldn’t be easy.

Memo to MLS: It’s not 2002 anymore. It’s time to start separating the men from the boys. Teams shouldn’t be rewarded for sitting on their hands in the summer months. The importance of winning, not getting points, needs to be reinforced. And best way to do that is to cut the number of teams eligible for the postseason. Whether it’s eight, six, or five, it’s better than handing the majority of the league getting a golden ticket to the postseason.

MLS has a serious competition issue to address during the offseason. Mediocrity shouldn’t be rewarded. It should be shunned. And while the league has always cast a wide net for its playoff pool, the expansion of the playoffs amid the addition of two expansion sides and a 34-game schedule led to an unintended consequence this summer: the proliferation of slumber-inducing soccer.

You want to know the reason why we saw so many teams settle for the stalemates this summer? It’s because a ten-team playoff window encouraged it.

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