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MLS playoff format is an outlier in world soccer — and that’s a good thing

On Soccer

In an MLS playoff campaign flush with drama, the Columbus Crew celebrated an Eastern Conference triumph against the New York Red Bulls. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — If soccer purists had their way, the MLS season would have ended six weeks ago when the New York Red Bulls raised the Supporters’ Shield for their endurance across a 34-match campaign.

This is, after all, the way leagues operate in most corners of the soccer empire: The club that compiles the most points during the regular season – the only season – takes home the prize.

It’s uncomplicated and just. Rather than rejoicing over a playoff sprint, it respects the marathon. It rewards long-term preparation, mid-year adjustment and late-season fortitude.

Often, though, matters are settled several weeks – and foreseen months — before the last round of matches. Although other pursuits remain in play – in Europe, teams out of the title chase are still hunting continental berths in the UEFA Champions League or Europa League, not to mention trying to avoid relegation – the race for the big trophy is typically a foregone conclusion.

MLS uses playoffs to crown its champion. It always has and, barring a hostile takeover by traditionalists, always will. This season culminates Sunday with a small-market showdown between the Columbus Crew and Portland Timbers in the 20th edition of the MLS Cup.

Both teams are worthy of the grand stage, having finished the regular season tied with Vancouver for the third-most points behind the Red Bulls and FC Dallas. In three of the previous four years, the MLS Cup champion was first or second in the regular season’s overall standings, proving top teams over the long haul can also thrive when the margin of error is smaller.

MLS does recognize the regular season champions with the Supporters’ Shield trophy and an automatic slot in international competition (CONCACAF Champions League), not to mention MLS Cup hosting rights if they go the distance.

But the playoffs add an extra layer to the league’s portfolio, a burst of spirit, energy and tension often absent in the long regular season. Some will argue that, without playoff berths offering second chances, the regular season would carry greater importance. Perhaps.

Like in the other U.S. pro sports leagues, too many midseason MLS games are forgotten by the next day. But if the playoffs did not exist, a team stuck in the middle of the pack for months would still not gain inspiration in the closing weeks to finish 14th instead of 18th overall.

They would be compelled to fight until the end if U.S. soccer implemented a promotion-relegation system – the worst teams in the top tier drop the next season, while the best in the next tier rise – but that is still years, if not decades, from occurring.

As things stand in MLS, the regular season tells a story in chapters without the promise of a compelling ending, while the playoffs often save the season’s best for last. Liga MX, Mexico’s wildly popular competition with eight-team playoffs, is at the semifinal stage this weekend.

This year’s autumn rush in MLS was one of the best in the circuit’s 20 seasons. In 16 games, 18 goals have been scored after the 75th minute and only three or four matches lacked drama.

Without the postseason, fans would not have witnessed:

  • D.C. United score in the 83rd minute – and New England’s Jermaine Jones rage about a missed call in the dying moments – to win a first-round match.
  • Seattle and Los Angeles alternate goals before the Sounders prevailed, 3-2, before almost 40,000 on a weeknight.
  • Kansas City and Portland each score in extra time, then go 11 rounds in a penalty-kick tiebreaker, which included a potential winning bid hit both posts and the Timbers goalkeeper clinching victory by saving a shot by the K.C. keeper.
  • Montreal and Seattle record comeback victories in almost must-win situations during home legs of conference semifinals.
  • Columbus level the aggregate score against Montreal in the return leg and then defeat the Impact in extra time on Kei Kamara’s header.
  • Dallas score an apparent series-winner in the 84th minute vs. Seattle, the Sounders rebound with an ostensible clincher in the 90th, and Dallas strike back a minute later to force extra time. (Ultimately, Dallas won on penalty kicks.)
  • The Crew’s Justin Meram set a league record by scoring nine seconds into the Eastern finals against the Red Bulls, a dizzying launch to a 2-0 first-leg victory.
  • New York score late in the second leg, then hit the post in the dying seconds.
  • Nat Borchers, the Timbers’ long-bearded defender, score a late goal for a 3-1 edge after the opening leg of the Western finals against Dallas, which responded from a deficit at home with a pair of goals before conceding Lucas Melano’s stoppage-time clincher.

Whew.

Great goals and great moments occur in the regular season as well, but the playoff backdrop enhances them. Exceptional playoff matches, regardless of outcome, stay with supporters into the brief offseason and help MLS gain mainstream traction during a cluttered period on the North American sports landscape.

MLS’s playoff plan is not without glaring flaws: Too many teams qualify (12 of 20), higher seeds don’t have definitive home-field advantage in the two-leg stages, and a two-week break for international play in mid-November stunts momentum. The postseason format has undergone several renovations and Commissioner Don Garber said the league is not afraid to continue tinkering.

Regardless, the playoffs have served MLS well and, if the undeniable theater of 2015 is any indication, the Crew and Timbers will reinforce that point in the central Ohio chill Sunday.

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