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MLS pairings unfair; and solution will get tougher

Post by Don Ruiz / The News Tribune on Oct. 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm with 9 Comments »
October 26, 2011 1:05 pm

Coach Sigi Schmid generally takes an attitude of simply playing the team that he has to play and not worrying about things he can’t control. And that’s largely the attitude that he’s taken about the MLS playoff system that rivals only the BCS for basic unfairness.

This season, 10 of the 18 MLS teams have made the playoffs. They all get there by playing the same schedule: facing the other 17 teams home and a way. And yet, somehow the teams with the second and third best records will open against each other, absolutely assuring that one of the top three teams won’t advance to the final four. It also absolutely precludes the two best teams from meeting in the final. This is nuts.

And RSL coach Jason Kreis sort of said as much today during a conference call of three playoff-bound coaches (the other’s were Philly’s Pete Nowak and Houston’s Dominic Kinnear. Schmid will go tomorrow.)

“I don’t agree with the system,” Kreis said. “But I also accept what it is and recognize that I don’t get to make those decisions, so we’ll deal with it the best way that we know how. I think you have to feel particularly aggrieved for Seattle because after the season that they’ve put together to have to turn around and play us rather than what should be a wildcard team, really, if it was the other way is I think a particularly poor place for them to be.”

As I mentioned, Schmid usually takes the attitude of not worrying about what he can’t control. And because in this case, the control rests with MLS executives, we asked general manager Adrian Hanauer about if the system should be improved.

And without talking much about this year’s unfairness, he rightly points out that fairness is going to become a lot tougher to define next season if the league switches — as expected — to an unbalanced schedule.

“I think that in a growing league it’s almost going to be year to year looking at how you do it,” Hanauer said. “Because now we go to unbalanced again next year with 19 teams and there’s discussion of whether we end up balanced schedule. … There’s a lot of direction toward not a balanced schedule: potentially playing intraconference more than interconference. It starts to muddy the waters even more as to who the best eight/10 teams are at the end of the league season – because if you’re not all playing the same teams home and away, it eliminates the purity of who the best 10 teams are. … No matter what we end up with it will be flawed in some way in terms of the purity of the best teams placing in the right order. But there is a competition committee meeting coming up real soon. That will be, I’m sure, on the agenda.”

Leave a comment Comments → 9
  1. ciscokid says:

    Hanuer’s point about unbalanced schedule is correct and there will be some unfairness next year. However, this year’s idiocy was completely foreseeable and avoidable.

    Sigi’s contention that you have to beat all the best teams to win the Cup is ridiculous.

    Colorado has to beat the 7th seed and 5th seed to make it to the Cup.
    Houston has to beat no higher than a 5th seed to go to the cup. Seattle has to beat the 3rd seed and 1st seed (or perhaps 4th or 10th seed) to make it. Only Seattle and RSL have to beat both the top 3 teams (if seeds play out) to make it to the Cup. Utter stupidity.

  2. cabbyneilson says:

    Seems easy – have 1 division to include all 19 teams. Have 8 playoff teams with 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. Once thre are 20 teams, expand to add a round to include a situation where 9 vs. 12 and 10 vs. 11 have a one game playoff to see who advances to the round of 8. Like I said – EASY!

  3. The problem is caused by the Conferences.

    The owners want Conferences and Conference Championships.

    Playoffs will never be “fair” with Conferences, just as they aren’t “fair” in the NHL, NBA, NFL (7-9 Seahawks!) or MLB.

    Owners + the way major US sports are played = maybe just stop complaining?

  4. ciscokid says:


    EXCEPT, when was the last time an AFC wildcard had to go play teams from the NFC to advance to the Superbowl? That’s what’s different here. My complaint is that Dallas and Colorado both potentially face an easier task by getting moved to a different conference for the playoffs, than the teams that did the hard work and finished ahead of them. Why the hell did RSL represent the East in 2009? Ridiculous.

    In every conference sport there are inequities within the conference (just look at the Seahawks making playoffs with 7-9 record) from year to year. But to “reward” weaker conference teams by moving them to a weaker conference for the playoffs is patently absurd.

  5. elmocatt says:

    Because of all of the nonsense around the MLS playoffs, I have a hard time getting too wrapped up in them (but obviously want the Sounders to continue their winning ways). Just look at the last two years – RSL and then Dallas won the Cup. Seriously? Neither of those teams were anywhere close to the best teams either year – just the luckiest/hottest teams come playoff time – a compressed three weeks in late Oct to Nov.

    Owners basically need to go back to the drawing board in terms of playoff structure. Either have conferences or not. Either have a straight seeding or not. But to have a jumbled mess, like it currently is, just does not work. And really detracts from the integrity of the March to October regular season in my opinion.

  6. Don Ruiz says:

    I think it seems more straightforwardly unfair in MLS because of the balanced schedule. If teams play more games against their own conference, then not all equal records would necessarily indicate equal times. But when everybody plays everyone else home and road, well, then really there’s not much need for playoffs at all. But if you’re going to have them, straight seeding seems the way to go.

    In any case, I’m also passing along this story on the topic, which I think gets to an interesting suggestion at the end:

  7. @ciscokid Actually, the Wild Cards are intended to make the MLS playoffs MORE fair.

    Without them you have 5 of the top 6 clubs in MLS playing down for the right to face the 5th through the 10th in the final.

    The real problems are caused by two small conferences – if there were 30-32 clubs, segregating them would be more appropriate, but right now there should be a single table (not for snooty Euro reasons but because there are too few clubs).

  8. And I had hoped Grant Wahl would know better than to propose an even more complicated playoff system. We have a “pool” and it’s called the “regular season.”

    What I’d like is:

    1. The season winner (that would be LA this year) to actually get a trophy (either the SS or The Don comes up with a new sponsored thing) and prize money commensurate with the achievement.

    2. Every club competes in straight-seeded playoffs (think League Cup in England) based on last year’s record. This playoff begins in the spring and the Final is played either just before or after the regular season ends.

    Added bonus in this plan: we can extend the regular season through the third week in November because playoffs don’t follow. Four weeks should be plenty of added time to allow for the extra in-season fixtures.

  9. EverydayFan says:

    My biggest hang-ups about MLS playoffs are the one-game conference championships and MLS Cup, with the latter on a neutral field.

    I much prefer the MLB / NBA / NHL model of multiple game series that guarantee season tickets holders get the chance to “host the world” and watch their teams fight for the Championship. Even if each series is two games, home and away, it would be a huge improvement to the end of the year.

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