This year’s MLS Cup playoffs final features Toronto FC, who finished in 5th place during the regular season, taking on the Seattle Sounders, who finished 7th. It’s a matchup that exemplifies a problem plaguing almost every MLS post-season over the past dozen years: The best teams in the regular season hardly ever play in the championship title game.
While most soccer leagues crown the top team of the season as the title holder, MLS declares the winner of its post-season playoffs the champion. All the major American sports leagues decide its championships through a post-season, but the MLS Cup playoffs often rewards teams that played just “well enough” in the regular season while penalizing the best clubs from in the regular season.
FC Dallas won the Supporters Shield this season, an award given to the team that wins the MLS regular season. Although it sounds prestigious, the shield means little besides earning the club a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
Dallas ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs. Their post-season failure continues a run of MLS teams winning the regular season title but failing in the playoffs.
In the last 12 years, only 2 Supporters Shield teams have even made the MLS Cup final, the 2008 Columbus Crew and 2011 Los Angeles Galaxy. They both won the title. In the same time span, the second place team in the regular season only made it four times (in 2005, 2009, 2013, 2014) as well.
More often than not the MLS Cup winner ends up being a team that had a mediocre regular season but plays well enough in the postseason to claim the championship:
– In 2004, DC United finished 4th and won the MLS Cup title.
– In 2005, Los Angeles sneaked into the playoffs in 8th place and won the cup.
– In 2006, the Houston Dynamo finished 5th and claimed the title.
– In 2009 Real Salt Lake won the MLS Cup after an 8th place regular season finish.
– In 2010, Colorado won the championship despite a 7th place finish.
– In 2012, the Los Angeles Galaxy won the MLS Cup despite finishing in 8th place.
– In 2015 the Portland Timbers finished in 5th place and won the MLS Cup.
There may be multiple reasons why the Supporter Shield champion does not win the league.
One is a playoff where 12 of the MLS’s 20 teams make the postseason. Another is a format that doesn’t honestly give a home field advantage to the Supporters Shield winners. Currently, the champions only get a bye past the first round winner. In the second round, they play a home and away series, with the home game the second leg.
Only 1 of the past 5 Supporters Shield winners have even made it past that round to the conference finals.
Another reason may be talent parity between the teams in the league. Whatever the cause, the MLS playoffs devalues the purpose and importance of winning the regular season title.
What solutions are there? A possible one would be to cut the playoffs to include only the top teams in each division playing a home and away series for the “MLS Cup.” However, reducing the number of games and teams making the postseason looks to be a non-starter with the league’s brass.
In a press conference before the final, MLS Commissioner David Garber addressed the issue by saying the league wants to continue offering a playoff format that is exciting for the fans but also emphasizes the results of the teams in the regular season. “I’m not afraid to make changes,” Garber remarked while also stating that there will not be any changes to the MLS CUP Playoffs in 2017.
Let us hope in 2018, for the integrity of the league, and the teams that win the regular season, they will.
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