Any sports fan would agree: the teams that perform the best in a given league’s regular season should make the playoffs.
Unfortunately for fans of most North American major pro sports, the leagues they follow have a nasty habit of inviting relatively undeserving squads to their respective postseasons while leaving worthier clubs looking forlornly through the storefront window.
I say “most” pro sports leagues get it wrong because, unbeknownst to most casual soccer fans in the States, America’s own Major League Soccer flaunts the most merit-based playoff format this side of the Atlantic.
What better time than the eve of the 2010 MLS Cup Playoffs to praise what is the fairest postseason qualification system in all the land? Almost every year the NBA, NHL, NFL and Major League Baseball manage to leave out at least one team unjustly, but MLS has virtually ensured that its best eight clubs will have a chance to claim a championship, while at the same time maintaining the value of division/conference titles.
How has MLS done this? Like the four leagues mentioned above, MLS divides its teams into two overarching groups. Like the NBA and NHL, MLS contains two geographic conferences, each of which will form one half of the postseason bracket. Also similar to the other sports, MLS allows non-division/conference winners into the playoffs by way of wild card berths to help ensure that the best teams, regardless of uncontrollable circumstances, will qualify for the postseason.
But that’s where the leagues stop mirroring each other. After granting the top two in each conference an automatic berth, the MLS awards a wild card to any team with a record that places it among the top four non-automatic qualifying teams league-wide. Contrast the MLS system to the other sports, which hand out even numbers of wild cards to each conference.
Giving an equal number of wild cards to each side of the playoff bracket can create situations in which a team with a worse record than a team from the opposite conference gets into the postseason simply because a given number of clubs from each conference must qualify under league rules.
The 2010 regular season standings demonstrate the merits of the MLS system perfectly. Per league rules described above, the top two squads in each conference – New York and Columbus in the East, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City in the West – received the top two seeds on each half of the bracket. With the Western Conference having a better year overall than its counterpart, all four wild card spots went to the teams placing third through sixth in the West – Dallas, Seattle, Colorado and San Jose.
The difference in quality between the two conferences was vast, as San Jose finished seven points ahead of Kansas City, which finished third in the East. But despite the dramatic tilting of the league’s power balance, a “weak sister” like Kansas City didn’t undeservedly take the place of any stronger counterpart in the West.
It could even be argued that only the conference regular season champion should automatically be advanced to the postseason, leaving the No. 2 finishers to fend for themselves in the “wild card wilderness.” Leaving that minor gripe aside, the MLS should be commended for validating the worth of regular season results.
While the fans of under .500 NHL and NBA playoff teams will probably disagree, the playoffs should pit the best a league has to offer, and Major League Soccer is leading the way in honoring that concept.
About the Author
Written by Matt Gajtka
A graduate of Marshall University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Matt earned his bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism in December of 2007. While at Marshall, Matt served as reporter, columnist and sports editor of MU's student newspaper, The Parthenon. Matt was the A/V intern and No. 2 radio broadcaster in the summer of 2007 for the West Virginia Power, the one-time Class A affiliate of MLB's Milwaukee Brewers. He served as media relations interns for the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL for the 2008-09 season, then worked full-time for the USHL's Youngstown Phantoms as Director of Broadcasting and Media during the 2009-10 campaign.