Two legs bad

If the world ended today, the MLS standings would look like this: 1.  Los AngelAAAAAH OH MY GOD IT'S THE BIG ONE 2.  SeaAAAAAAH MT. ST. HELEN'S HAS ERUPTED 3.  Real Salt LaAAAAAAH NOOO RUSSIAN ICBM STRIKE 4.  DallAAAAH BREK NO PLEASE DON'T LEAVE US 5.  PhiladelphiaAAAAAH HOW DID WE LOSE TO THE CARDINALS 6.  KansaAAAAAH I'LL NEVER EVER CALL THEM SPORTING 7.  ColoraAAAAAH AT LEAST WE'LL DIE AS DEFENDING MLS CHAMPS 8.  ColumbuAAAAAAH I DON'T HAVE EIGHTEEN JOKES FOR THIS BIT 9.  New York Red Bulls.  What, it's the Red Bulls.  The end of the world would be a step up 10.  Houston AAAAAH NOOO WE LIVE IN HOUSTON just kidding, I've never been there, for all I know it's lovely

This is the time of year where we realize the importance of playoffs to the league...and how the playoff system can make regular season games very important, or not important at all.

So let's assume that our goal is to have the most meaningful games possible as late in the season as possible.   Is there an optimal format?  Is this year's system making for more exciting races than last year's, or less?  Did expanding the playoffs increase suspense, or simply reward mediocrity?

Well, everybody has at least two games left, some have three.  What we would like, ideally, is for something to be at stake in every game remaining.  This, however, will remain an ideal, because the more you try to make games toward the bottom important, the fewer games will matter towards the top. 

For the sake of illustration, consider the worst system possible - a conference tournament in NCAA basketball.  The top 14 qualify for the tournament, the remaining four compete in an extra game to fill out the bracket.  If that sounds like it devalues the regular season, congratulations, you've just spotted the flaw in the NCAA basketball regular season. 

So, we'll have to accept that teams that have played badly throughout the season are, at best, going to be spoilers, and at worst are just going to be playing out the string.

(Please do not point out that in a theoretical relegation battle, Vancouver and New England would be locked in a titanic death struggle, because MLS will never ever have a relegation battle.)

Perhaps the easiest way to see the practical effect of the playoff race is to see what's at stake in the actual scheduled games.  Let's assign the games Meaning Points.

If a playoff spot can be clinched with a win, or lost with a loss - 4 points. If you're still technically alive after a loss, or haven't quite clinched with a win, but you're close to either - 3 points. If having a play-in game vs. a bye is at stake - 2 points. If mere standings position is at stake - 1 point. If nothing is at stake - a million points, what do you think?

TONIGHT:

COLORADO v. SALT LAKE:  Hopefully you'd watch this anyway - rivalry game between two hard-nosed, talented teams.  What's at stake this year:  Salt Lake can clinch third in the West (whee) - they are still technically alive for second in the West (whee), but they'd have a lot of goal differential to make up.   They seem to be trying for a play-in game at this point, apparently on the theory that fifth place in the West has brought us the last two MLS Cup champions.  2 points, but it should really be 1 or fewer.  For Colorado - well, they can still bungle the playoffs, I suppose.  3 points, but it really should just be 2.  5 points total, but frankly this game is saved because the two teams hate each other so much.

Under last year's system: same deal, pretty much - Salt Lake would be jockeying for playoff position, and the Rapids would be fighting to clinch.  4 points.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

PORTLAND v. HOUSTON:  Touchy Timbers fans demanded that Portland be included in this week's MLS playoff scenario article, even though nothing will be decided for them tonight.  Touchy Timbers fans are right, though - their last two games are on the road, where they've been unadorable to say the least.  3 points, then, although with that lousy road record they're fighting pretty hard for the privilege of one more road game.  The Dynamo - well, Wednesday's results made their lives a little easier, and if they win tonight, they can almost take a breath.  3 points, making 6 points total.

Under last year's system:  neither team would be dead, but they'd both be on life support.  Probably would be an 8 point game, since the losing would have been fatal.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

SATURDAY'S GAMES:

KANSAS CITY v. NEW YORK:  If the Timbers win tonight, the heat gets turned up a lot in this game.  Win, and the Wizards (shut up) are in - that's easy enough.  4 points.  The Red Bulls will survive the weekend, but at what cost?  7 point game here.

Under last year's system:  I didn't factor in the importance of winning the regular season conference title.  Probably because there is no importance to winning the regular season conference title.  I think this game would have been worth the full 8 points, what with New York being in ninth place and all.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

PHILADELPHIA v. TORONTO:  Pretty straightforward.   The Union clinch a playoff spot with a win.  4 points.  If you asked Toronto FC for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they'd put the bread in the middle.  0 points.  4 points total.

Under last year's system:  Same deal.  4 points.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

DC UNITED v. CHICAGO:  DC could theoretically lose this game, and survive?  You're kidding me.  I don't believe it.  Loser is out of the playoffs, I don't care what the math says.  8 points.

Under last year's system:  just screwing around.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

NEW ENGLAND v. COLUMBUS:  The Crew can clinch a spot tomorrow, theoretically.  I have no idea what New England is showing up for.  Probably because they haven't shown up in four months.  4 points it is. 

Under last year's system:  Columbus is white-knuckling it, New England is New England.  4 points.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

DALLAS v. VANCOUVER:  Tell me Dallas can't lose this game.  I dare you.  I double-dare you.  2 points, because FC still has a shot at avoiding the wild card round...assuming they want to.  The road to riches is paved with a move to the Eastern bracket, after all.

Under last year's system:  Dallas is still fighting for that precious fifth place spot.  1 point.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

SEATTLE v. SAN JOSE:  Technically, the Sounders can still finish third.  Well, by the time this game kicks off, maybe not.  Salt Lake would have to win out, and make up an 8 goal difference, but still, this is technically a 1 point game.  Bear with me on this, though, I'll get back to it.

Under last year's system:  Same deal.

Under a single table:  just screwing around.

LOS ANGELES v. CHIVAS USA:  just screwing around.

Under last year's system:  just screwing around.

Under a single table: just screwing around.

The Superclasico, everybody!

I'm loath to say this, but the new playoff structure seems to be doing its job.  Only the most hapless of teams have nothing to play for, and most of them can still affect the fates of their betters.

And the play-in game finally gives teams a practical difference between first and fourth.  With MLS parity, putting fourth place teams on an equal footing with first place teams simply made the first place teams endangered species.  Now, finally, the table position has consequences.  Serious consequences - the same parity that used to allow fourth place teams to torment conference winners will now allow sixth and seventh place teams to torment fourth place teams.

The one improvement left is one that's long overdue - the end of the two-legged first round.

(And four legs is right out.)

The Sounders are fairly safe in second, but what if they fall to third place?  All that happens is the order of their Rio Tinto game changes.  To paraphrase Snoopy, Thrillsville '11.

But if there was a real home field advantage, even a mathematical chance of trading a game on the home carpet for a mountain hike would get Seattle's full attention.

To say nothing of the chaos in the East.  It looks like goal differential might settle a spot or two as it is - imagine the tension if the difference between a home crowd and a road game came down to a last-second extra time kick...even if the actual game is decided.  It could happen.

It will also be easy to explain to the American public, since it's basically the NFL playoff system.  (Hey, I never said I was original.)