With the MLS Cup playoffs getting underway Wednesday night, SI’s soccer staff takes a look at a few storylines in a Planet Fútbol roundtable. Here’s part one of two.
The New York Red Bulls won their first major trophy in club history Sunday when they clinched the Supporters' Shield. Is the season a success regardless of playoff result, or will it be considered a failure if New York fails to reach the final?
Grant Wahl: Winning the Supporters' Shield was a great moment for New York’s long-suffering fan base and guys like coach Mike Petke who’ve been connected to the franchise for years. But even Petke would tell you this season won’t be considered successful if New York fails to reach the final on its home field.
The Red Bulls aspire to be a big club and spend the money to do so. In some ways the Supporters' Shield increases the playoff expectations by showing that this team has the capability of winning MLS Cup.
Brian Straus: I think back to what Dax McCarty told me before Sunday’s Shield clincher: “You have to start somewhere. You have to start with a winning mentality and that’s the first thing you need if you’re going to be successful.”
Now they have that start. The trophy drought had seeped into the Red Bulls’ DNA. They were losers. The curse wasn’t about Caricola. It was about executives, coaches and players that prioritized the wrong things, lacked patience or didn’t go about their work the right way. That's changed under Petke. It’s evident on and off the field.
If New York stumbles in a short playoff series, the players and fans will be upset, and understandably so. But I think that sadness will fade over time. The culture of this club has changed for the better. The second trophy might not be lifted in a month, but it sure won’t take another 17 years. This season will be remembered as the turning point.
Alexander Abnos: If it was any other club with that roster and season record, failing to win MLS Cup would definitely equal disappointment. But this is the New York/New Jersey MetroBulls we're talking about. Their entire existence since Red Bull purchased the team back in 2006 has been predicated on finally winning something -- anything -- to prove to their fans and themselves that it was possible.
They've done that, so from my point of view this season is already a success. I don't expect many of the players, coaches or fans to agree with me, though. Nor should they.
Avi Creditor: I think it's a success for New York regardless, in the context that the club exorcised plenty of its past demons and can stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There is little correlation between carrying the top record into the playoffs and emerging victorious, though. The Supporters' Shield winner has won only two of the past 10 MLS Cups and reached only three of the last 10 finals. So in the vacuum that is New York Red Bulls history, already having that piece of silverware and a CONCACAF Champions League berth makes 2013 a landmark campaign, no matter what. Whatever extra comes is gravy.
Don't think for one second that's the mentality circulating Mike Petke's locker room, though, not with a chance to host the final and win the big one before New York City FC can put a team on the field.
Is the MLS playoff format fair? If so, why? If not, how should it change?
Grant Wahl: Not really. Even MLS commissioner Don Garber acknowledged to me last year that lower-seeded teams should have a higher hill to climb in order to win the MLS Cup. Los Angeles showed last year it’s no real penalty to have to start in the “play-in game,” reinforcing the idea that as long as you can finish in the top five of your conference the regular season doesn’t matter much when it comes to the playoffs.
One solution: a group format that would turn the MLS playoffs into something like the Confederations Cup but with the top seed in each four-team group playing all three group games at home, the bottom seed playing all three on the road and so on. Now that would be a higher hill to climb for the lower seeds and reward regular-season success.
Brian Straus: The playoff system is better now than the ludicrous four-game coin flip used in 2003-10, but it still has two massive flaws. First, it’s still too short. The championship should be harder to win. Second, the home-and-home series robs the higher seed of any home-field advantage and eliminates the most fundamental point of soccer – to be better over 90 minutes. If you’re content with a one-goal loss in a playoff game, something’s wrong.
I’m thrilled Grant continues to endorse the group-stage idea. MLS has discussed it and shot it down, but it should reconsider. The league worried about teams playing for ties (which they do now in the home-and-home) and meaningless matches at the end of the round-robin (fans are used to “if necessary” in baseball, hockey and basketball). Neither of those issues is worse than what we endure now.
The knockout round could continue, with the survivors becoming the bottom seeds in a four-team group. The proposed group stage provides ample reward for the higher seed. It will make more games relevant to each fan base and will reward winning. We can revert back to the home-and-home series for the semifinals.
Scheduling (a couple more mid-week regular season games might be necessary) and whether the groups are mixed or conference-based are topics for another day. But change is necessary. MLS continues to have to defend its champion. If a playoff team needs 6-7 games to win the title in a system that rewards regular-season performance, the defense will rest.
Alexander Abnos: Given how incredibly strange the regular-season schedule is, the playoff format is about as fair as it can be. Which is to say, it's not fair at all. With uneven conferences, an unbalanced schedule and little to no uniformity in the path teams must take to get from the first game to the last, it's hard to put much stock in the seedings that determine the very structure of the playoffs. Consider the following:
- If the Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls meet in the MLS Cup final, it will be the Timbers' first trip to Red Bull Arena in 2013. It will also be the teams' first meeting since the first day of the regular season.
- The Houston Dynamo's only games against the top three seeds in the West (Portland, Real Salt Lake, and L.A.) came away from their home field. They never had a chance to get points off those teams at home.
- On the opposite side, the top-seeded Timbers played just one Eastern Conference playoff team away from home. Every other team's only chance against Portland was in front of the Timbers’ raucous home crowd.
These may seem like nitpicky complaints, but in a regular season in which the standings were as close as they've ever been in the league's history, a couple points added or lost because of home-field advantage might have been enough to prevent Houston from having to play a first-round game or to drop Portland off its perch in the West.
The solution: Somehow, some way, balance the dang schedule. Get rid of the (unnecessary, in my opinion) East/West conference system if you have to. Just get it done.
Avi Creditor: In terms of American-style playoffs, the current format does not really reflect the balance of the regular season.
With a home-and-home, two-leg series determining the finalists that come out of each conference, there really is little advantage for a team to play its way to a higher seed, especially if it's the No. 2 or No. 3 seed. Sure, the top seed gets a little bit more of a weary opponent following the play-in round, but then the “rest vs. rust” argument comes into play. Coaches will say there are advantages and disadvantages to hosting the second game, but like we've seen in the past, when one lower-seeded home team races out to a large first-leg lead, the higher seed's advantage of playing at home for that second leg is negated
If the format is going to remain the same, then perhaps give the team with the higher seed the option to host the first game, especially if it means cutting down on travel between series. Otherwise, aside from a complete revamp, there's not a whole lot of minor tinkering that can be done without getting too gimmicky.
What potential playoff matchup would you like to see most?
Grant Wahl: Portland-Seattle. Can you imagine what it would be like if the most passionate rivalry in MLS took place in the MLS postseason for the first time? That’s exactly what will happen if Seattle beats Colorado in the play-in game Wednesday. Two conference semifinals -- one in Seattle, one in Portland -- would be the most anticipated MLS playoff series in a long, long time.
Brian Straus: Portland-Seattle is the obvious answer. It would be a blast. But that rivalry is entrenched. It doesn’t need to grow in Cascadia, and I’m not sure what impact a Timbers-Sounders quarterfinal might have on the sport around the rest of the country.
What really would command the national spotlight is a New York-L.A. MLS Cup final at Red Bull Arena. Donovan, Henry, Keane, Cahill, Gonzalez, McCarty, Arena and Petke, all with the Big Apple background. Storylines galore on the biggest stage possible. And it likely would be a pretty entertaining game as well. Seeing the Galaxy go for a historic three-peat against the rejuvenated Red Bulls would be the biggest game in MLS history.
Alexander Abnos: A Portland vs. L.A. Galaxy matchup in the conference championship might be one for the ages. You've got the next big American coach (Portland's Caleb Porter) versus the old guard (L.A.'s Bruce Arena), the likely MLS Newcomer of the Year (Portland's Diego Valeri) versus the best player in league history (Landon Donovan) and a legacy of championships versus the feisty young upstarts. I have no idea how that matchup would play out, but I'm pretty confident it would be must-see TV. Mostly, I just want to see something like this happen again:
Avi Creditor: It's got to be Portland-Seattle. The Cascadia Cup rivals bring the best and most emotion out of one another, and with the stakes rising even higher, it would be a phenomenal spectacle to have the two play in each of their respective raucous home arenas in the span of a week.
Of course, Seattle hasn't won in seven matches and has to get by an overlooked Colorado team that thrashed the Sounders 5-1 in their last meeting in order to set up the dream conference semifinal.CREDITOR: Pressure's on for Dempsey, Sounders in MLS playoffs