Making Teams Play In To The PlayoffsMLS’s playoff system is no longer “everyone gets a trophy!”
by Jeff Maurer | Friday, September 21, 2012
For years, Major League Soccer mimicked one of the most annoying facets of youth soccer: Everyone won something.
Or almost everyone.
It used to be that eight out of 10 teams made the playoffs. If that’s not the logical equivalent of handing out trophies for “most punctual” and “best attitude,” then I don’t know what is. MLS made the Special Olympics look cutthroat.
In the “80 percent of teams are winners” days, the regular season meant nothing. If your team was a legitimate contender, it’d qualify for the playoffs by Memorial Day and spend the last four months of the season trying to avoid injuries. Star players would be frequently rested. Rookies and guys who had been tearing up USL-8, futsal, or the local park league would get a look. Fans approached the season the way one might approach an election: “I’ll pay attention in the fall when things actually start to matter.”
If your team was struggling for a playoff berth, then it had already lost. Only bad teams had to fight to make the playoffs.
The most meaningful games were between last and second-to-last place teams, and nobody wants to watch that. Nobody wants to watch people at the bottom of their profession; NBC doesn’t cut away from Olympic beach volleyball coverage to show a fat, slightly drunk gymnast from an off-brand country lurch and stumble through a floor routine.
“Meaningful” games were painful to watch, and even if your team won, the reward was usually just to extend the season by one more humiliating beat-down.
Today, the MLS playoff race means something, and that’s a dramatic improvement. 47 percent of teams will not make the playoffs, presumably because they think they are victims and expect the league to take care of them and can’t take responsibility for their own season.
Screw those beatniks.
Playoffs are for winners, and in 2012 MLS has finally reached the point where the playoffs will only feature teams that are at least sorta good. It’s like sleeping with George Clooney: You have to be kind of halfway decent or better to be able to do it.
I like to take note of the gradual improvements in MLS. Fewer games played on turf: improvement. Designated players: improvement. Having young players spend more time playing in the Reserve League than working at Foot Locker: improvement. No more urine-themed team name in Kansas City: improvement.
And having regular-season games that mean something is a definite improvement.
For the first time in my life, I’m cheering for a DC United team that is fairly good and yet might not make the playoffs. It’s exciting. It’s new. It makes me feel like I’m following a sports league and not a reality show where teams get voted off one at a time. If United make the playoffs, it’ll be a real accomplishment.
And if they don’t, at least adding another year to our playoff drought will seem slightly less pathetic.