All four MLS playoff teams with home-field advantage in the first two rounds failed to reach the conference finals. Five of the six best teams in the regular season are no longer playing. Last week, the top seeds in both conference finals (Seattle, D.C.) lost their opening matches convincingly (3-0, 3-1).
Los Angeles (fourth seed in West) and Houston (fifth seed in East) are in position for a rematch of the 2011 MLS Cup if they survive Sunday's second legs. If that happens, it will be the lowest-seeded final in MLS history.
At first glance, one might be inclined to believe these playoffs have been filled with remarkable upsets. Some will point out the parity of a league with teams that are extremely evenly matched or applaud individual players for stepping up come playoff time to lead lower seeds to victory. In reality though, it's the MLS playoff format itself which led to the demise of the high seeds. The supposed home-field advantage they were awarded simply does not work in their favor.
During my MLS playing days, the saying "It doesn't matter what place you finish, as long as you just get into the playoffs" was a known mantra in locker rooms because we knew there was no true home-field advantage under the current playoff format. As the league continues to evolve, it is now time to reward the teams with the best regular-season records (and their fans) with a true home-field advantage they can take advantage of in the playoffs, rather then setting them up for defeat.
In a two-game aggregate series where the lower seed hosts the first game and the higher seed the second, the result of that first game sets the tone. If the lower seed wins at home, which would be expected given the aforementioned parity in MLS, it eliminates any sort of advantage for the higher seed in hosting the second game with their backs against the wall. For a higher seed to go into a game knowing they are facing a deficit, it not only adds pressure for them to score, but also to "make the game" because the opposition is most likely going to play conservatively. The road team then heads into enemy turf knowing they have a cushion and simply need to manage the game rather than chase after it.
It has not been a good advertisement to ask fans to endure watching teams pack it in and defend for 90 minutes on MLS' biggest stage.
The Houston Dynamo displayed how to manage the second game of a series with a lead in the conference semifinals. They won 2-0 at home against Sporting Kansas City in the first leg. In the second, they never intended to attack other than to waste time. Coach Dominic Kinnear pointed to his team's disciplined defending as a key in getting a result (1-0), and credit must also be given to Dynamo coaching staff and players for perfectly executing it. However, when a second-leg strategy is solely to defend in order to advance, it certainly doesn't make for the most attractive match. By no means is the Dynamo to blame. They simply did what they needed to do to advance.
This is why the playoff format is flawed. It allows/forces teams to play this way in order to advance while also creating a disadvantage for the team supposedly being rewarded with home-field advantage. Even taking a lead into the second leg at home has disadvantages. Home teams do not usually play conservatively and force the away team to "make the game," but this is precisely what the situation promotes.
The San Jose Earthquakes had the best record in MLS this season, undefeated with a plus-21 goal differential at home. There was no way you could expect them to sit back and play it safe at home against the Los Angeles Galaxy in their conference semifinal, even though they headed into the match with a 1-0 aggregate lead. Not once had the Earthquakes played that way at home all season.
Suddenly, the home team was put in a precarious position. It is extremely difficult to play conservatively while feeding off the energy of the home crowd, especially in a playoff game. Rather than taking advantage of the fans' energy, I saw a comfortable setting look extremely uncomfortable for the Earthquakes as the Galaxy built a 3-0 halftime lead and advanced.
D.C. United was the only higher-seeded team that advanced to the conference finals, but interestingly enough, they agreed to rescind their home-field advantage just days before their first-leg match against the New York Red Bulls. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, D.C. agreed to play the first game of their series at home while New York/New Jersey residents and transportation services recovered.
A kind, heartwarming gesture indeed, but don't think for one second D.C. coach Ben Olsen didn't factor in that he actually preferred to draw first blood at home. Though the first leg ended in a 1-1 draw, Olsen and D.C. set the tone and were confident about getting a road result in the second match. They did.
The Galaxy and Dynamo take multiple-goal leads into Sunday's conference final finales. We can expect them to not take risks and make defending as a team for 90 minutes a priority. It wouldn't even be accurate to say that they will be playing "not to lose," because they actually won't mind losing as long as they are ahead in aggregate scoring.
Once again, the higher-seeded teams will be at a disadvantage. In a game that will determine who will play in the MLS Cup, fans will be forced to watch one team trying desperately to make it a game while the other does everything they need to do to basically kill it.
I suggest MLS reverts to the best-of-three format the league originated with. The high seed hosts the first and third legs. Not only will it provide a true home-field advantage, but the league/teams could also gain revenue with an additional playoff games. Throw out aggregate scoring. If a game ends in a tie, proceed to a shootout. This way, a team that wins the first game will not be comfortable packing it in and playing conservatively in the second.
Both teams will have to "make the game," and as a result we will see much more attractive soccer. I would much prefer watching teams play to win in the playoffs rather than play to protect a lead.