Setting the table; or, come home with the Shield or on it

Is it worth it to talk about the merits of a single table for next year? While MLS still has playoffs, there's not really much of a difference one way or the other. Maybe if we still had the system where the top four in each conference got in, we'd have something to yell about.

And we'd REALLY have something to yell about, wouldn't we? Preki and Mo Johnston would not only still be employed, they'd be taking credit for the Reds making the playoffs for the first time ever.

I wouldn't be that surprised if the league really did post their standings as a single table next year, because the league will have so many teams traditionally considered "Western." Otherwise, they'd have to put Dallas in the East. Can you imagine what kind of pitiful donkey show of a league would put Dallas in an Eastern division? We'd never hear the end of it.

But it won't make a difference - playoffs will trump the single table, and playoffs are here to stay. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages, always have, always will.

Let's start at the bottom. People talk about the number of meaningless games, but I don't see it. Hell, even the league's nosehair clippers can still delude themselves, even in mid-September. Check out Dominic Kinnear, talking that his team still has a chance at something - it's adorable.

I mean, yeah, he's right, in an "If they win all their remaining games and every other team loses all their remaining games" way. But if Houston thinks it's worth showing up to work, then nobody has an excuse. Outside Washington, of course, but those guys should be playing for their jobs.

What's actually needed is not simply a race for the playoffs, but a race for playoff spots. Right now, there's not a lot of difference between first and fourth, with the exception of the pride of winning the Supporters Shield.

So it's tempting to look at this year's race, and think "Wow, if this were for the league title, it would be a race for the ages. The Galaxy are three points ahead of a pack of wolves, and have looked vulnerable."

Well, except now that Dallas and New York knifed each other last night, the Galaxy are pretty much in the driver's seat.

Let's break it down. This will be a Shield race breakdown, but it also serves as a good reason why MLS isn't going to toss aside playoffs.

Five teams have a realistic shot at the Shield (and, in our fantasy world, the MLS Single Table Playoff-Free World Championship). Let's look at everyone's remaining games, and see how that's likely to shake out.

at Los Angeles
Kansas City
Salt Lake
at Philadelphia
New England

If you had told Red Bulls fans in March, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but you'll probably be out of the Supporters Shield race by mid-October," they would have wept with joy. It's not that this schedule is that hard, but they have one fewer game than the rest of the principals, and that's probably a bridge too far. Time to focus on whichever irritating Western Conference team they'll draw in the playoffs.

New England
at Kansas City
at Salt Lake
at Los Angeles

That gets pretty sexy towards the end...except they'll be without Kevin Hartman, oops. (Did Henry cost Hartman Comeback Player of the Year?) If they win the Shield, they'll really have earned it.

at New England
at Municipal (Guatemala City)
San Jose
at Seattle
at Chicago
at Toronto
at Joe Public (Port of Spain)

"But not all of those games count towards the Shield!" Oh, wow, you're right. I guess they're not going to be played, then, huh? Even if Bob Violence starts the Scrubbing Bubbles in some of these games, they still have to get on the damn airplanes. Not only are the Crew not going to get their third straight Shield, they might have a real problem when the first round of the playoffs roll around and they face a team that isn't completely gassed.

at Arabe Unido (yeah, the return leg of the most hilarious game in RSL history - have fun with this one, suckers)
at Toronto
at New England
at New York
Cruz Azul
at Colorado

Same deal here. Not quite as sick as what the Crew have to face, but the home games are tough, and the Royals are mediocre on the road (10 goals for, 10 against). (EDIT - the Toronto game is CCL, not MLS, so it doesn't do anything for anyone except waste airplane fuel.)

But here's the real problem:

DC United
New York
"at" Chivas USA
at Philadelphia

That's exactly one trip outside Carson, although hey! the Union have a winning record at home, you know. Of course, everybody except DC United has a winning record at home. Which is why all those "at"'s you see up there are important.

If the Galaxy just play fair-to-middling against the crappy teams left on their schedule, this race is pretty much done. Yes, now it can be told - if the Galaxy blow the Supporters Shield, it's David Beckham's fault.

And if you did away with the playoffs, that would be it. Los Angeles Galaxy, 2010 MLS Champions, by the grace of God, the schedule maker, and Bruce Arena's foresight in trashing the Open Cup and Champions Cup. And this is a year with a real Shield race (which, if the Galaxy hadn't taken two months off, it would not have been).

Ditching a guaranteed annual showdown in MLS Cup for the possibility of a tight race every other year or so? That's not the kind of low-percentage move Don Garber likes to make. You'll have your single table WUSA-style, or not at all.