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Increasing playoff field is all wrong


When it comes to MLS playoffs and the tricky business of postseason design, every structure falls into one of two categories: "imperfect" or "even more imperfect."

So it is with the new format being finalized. Commissioner Don Garber and the league's board of directors are adjusting the postseason structure -- the deciders just haven't quite decided yet on the final tweaks.

One element that has remained pleasingly stable through the years is the number of playoff teams. It has always been eight, going back to the days when Kansas City was the Wiz (two rebrandings back) and Carlos Valderrama was anchored inside the center circle for Tampa Bay, a team that no longer exists and probably never should have.

That doesn't mean eight was always the right number. When the league was so perilously close to ruin back in 2002, shedding dead weight but tiptoeing forward nervously with just 10 teams, the playoff field remained comically stuck on eight. The thought of an entire season played out to eliminate just two teams seems laughable now; fans tolerated it because the alternative was a return to the bad old days when the best domestic pro soccer was the indoor circuit.

By 2005 there were 12 teams, still not nearly enough to justify or support an eight-team playoff field. Which is why a Los Angeles Galaxy team oozing mediocrity claimed 2005 Cup glory. That one still makes some of us wince, a title sullied by a postseason mix that remained far too forgiving.

MLS grew and, lo and behold, it finally reached a point where half the teams would miss the playoffs. That happened this year with eight of the 16 clubs. Postseason teams could actually bask in a glow of achievement. If we're honest, getting into the playoffs previously might have meant only that some of the qualifiers weren't as lousy as some of the others.

Playoffs by their very nature should discriminate. Bad sides should be kept away with extreme prejudice; it just doesn't say much for your league when the lesser-accomplished and insufficiently skilled can still earn postseason berths.

This year's record 50 percent kill rate kept the bad teams out. Imagine that! Clubs that couldn't pass muster over the course of the entire season weren't handed a do-over.

It all meshed with one of MLS' most dynamic targets: to make the regular season more relevant. On the front end, league officials can sell matches over seven months that have greater meaning. On the back end, it adds to the growing quality on the field, which makes the whole enterprise better. Standard of play has been trending north gradually through the years; it's no coincidence that rising quality has coincided with a rise in the regular season's relevance. When every match matters, players need to be sharp every night out and coaches' choices carry more weight.

It was set to be even better next year as Vancouver and Portland join MLS to form an 18-team league. For the first time, more teams were set to actually miss the playoffs than make it. Praise be! Pat yourself on the back, MLS officials, you made it!

Or did you? What happened?

What could MLS officials have been thinking in those board meetings last week in Toronto as they decided to add two more teams to the playoff field for 2011? Now, 10 of 18 will battle in the postseason. It's a real head-scratcher.

MLS is sliding backward here, moonwalking back into the bad old days when more than half the field qualified for the playoffs. Ten get in. Eight miss out. The math here is as simple as it is undeniable: Some below-average teams will go to the playoffs.

What is this, U-12 rec league? "Everybody plays, everyone's a winner, and everyone gets a medal for showing up!"

This is also a head-scratcher because it came out of nowhere. Real Salt Lake co-owner Dave Checketts, discussing the upcoming board of directors meetings, told me just a few weeks ago that he had heard absolutely nothing about increasing the playoff field. Garber himself said the same thing around that time, that everyone seemed happy with that part of the postseason format. Eight was great, and it looked like it would start from there.

But eight wasn't so great after all.

I understand why MLS wants to add playoff teams, and I do see some value; I just believe the league loses more than it gains. Garber says that playoff games are the league's prize commodity. MLS sees the media pop that playoff matches generate in local markets. The league sees TV ratings and attendance spikes and it wants more.

"Counter to what soccer people around the world think, [playoff games] are the most valuable games that we have," Garber said before MLS Cup on Sunday night. "So I'm not sure by adding two more teams it devalues what we're trying to achieve.

"What we're trying to have is a very, very popular sports league that matters in those markets. The only way we're going to raise our television ratings is if more people care about our clubs. We think what's going to make them care about our clubs is when they have these special moments. And special moments are when these teams are playing in conference championships, in front of their home crowd, in a game they have earned and that they are excited about."

Exactly. But they have conference championships already, don't they? And there's a better chance that teams have properly earned their way into these memorable moments now. Adding two teams increases the odds that a Johnny-come-lately sneaks in -- and yes, that does diminish the regular season, which subtracts some bite from all the little "special moments" along the way.

Even if MLS arranges the structure so that the laggards meet early, they'll still have a chance. It's devolution toward the bad ol' days when every player knew the drill: just drag yourself into the postseason somehow. No need to sweat too much of the little stuff over the long haul; just be tight and right at playoff time and you've got a chance.

Garber says there are other ways to incentivize teams for better regular-season performance. Yes, the Supporters Shield is nice. Yes, berths in the Champions League means something. Perhaps they can concoct a playoff structure that really does reward higher seeds. He mentioned other possible methods for ginning up the regular-season impact, such as additional allocation money and tweaking draft order.

But at some point those are just decorative. Claiming the MLS Cup must be the raison d'être for these clubs. From a competitive standpoint, it really has to take top priority, with everything else a distant second. It's the simple message that fans can grab and hold and obsess over. And the essential first step to winning an MLS Cup must be, of course, playoff qualification.

If league officials have decided that the world isn't ready for a full MLS season of critical importance, then they've taken a step in the right direction, because this move absolutely devaluates the regular season. No amount of spin from the league will change that.