It’s crunch time in Major League Soccer, as the league’s elite sides jockey for playoff position in the final days of the regular season!!!
Well, okay: only some of the sentence above is true. The last days of the MLS campaign are, indeed, upon us, and there is, in fact, a highly confusing playoff scramble underway. The word “elite,” however—that’s where I’m stretching the truth. Like the NBA and NHL, our top-division soccer league uses a playoff scheme roughly as exclusive as a Hooters outlet; as long as you’re not visibly staggering and vomit-flecked (like this year’s astonishing New York Vodka & Red Bulls), you get in. When you consider that DC United, which has played 29 league matches and won nine—nine—of them, remains in contention, the league’s soft bigotry of low expectations becomes striking indeed.
Another striking feature of this year’s MLS table is the huge number of draws. The best team in the league, Columbus, has drawn 10 matches. The best team in the Western Conference, David Beckham’s own (ha) Los Angeles Galaxy, has drawn 12.
This is the point where the standard-issue American newspaper sports columnist takes a brief break from giving Tiger Woods a tender, sensual back rub to fulminate against the sport of soccer for all its damned draws. It pains me—a Europhile espresso-drinking socialist in good standing—to say that such characters would have a point when it comes to MLS this year.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! Look to the current English Premier League campaign. As Simon Kuper and numerous other pundits have remarked, draws have nearly become an endangered species in the Premiership. Of ten games played last weekend, only two ended in draws—and that’s actually a higher proportion of split tickets than average.
Why? In large part because the Premier League’s single-table, no-playoffs structure allows no margin for mediocrity. Indeed, while American leagues tend to reward fair-to-middling teams with playoff berths, the Premiership punishes not only mediocrity but mere moderate excellence. Last year’s Liverpool side, for example, lost just two of 38 matches and dominated major rivals like Manchester United. The Reds, however, drew too many matches against less formidable opposition, and lost the title race to the more ruthless and consistent United.
“A side drawing a match with 20 minutes remaining therefore has a strong incentive to take risks and play to win. After all, if it can convert one potential draw out of three into a win, fail to change the second draw, and turn the third draw into a defeat by taking unrewarded risks, it will have four points from three games. Three draws would bring it only three points.”
MLS, a soft-touch welfare state that parcels out goodies even to marginal performers like this year’s Seattle Sounders, employs no such incentives. The league doesn’t want to hear about single-table, and positively dreads suggestions regarding the structure’s implicit corollary, promotion and relegation. (If MLS adopted relegation, the Red Bulls would be playing in a Newark pub league within five years.) But it could chop its bloated playoffs down to a short, sharp four-team, three-game format. Top team in each conference hosts a semifinal, with the next two best teams in the league overall playing away. Top surviving team hosts the Cup Final.
Exacting. Simple. Brutal. Elegant. Draw-averse.