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Carson: MLS playoffs make the grade

| Thursday, November 19, 2015

I used to hate the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Soccer is an inherently fluky sport. One bounce, one touch or one wrong call can be the difference between a win and a loss on any given day for any given team.

When scoring is low, there’s bound to be a higher amount of variance in results.

As a statistics nerd, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the nature of the game. On one hand, it’s pretty neat that smaller teams can grab results against much better sides, simply because that element of luck or execution is on their side on any given day.

On the other hand, it leaves open a wider door for the opportunity that the best team doesn’t win any individual competition, especially one that concludes in a knockout tournament.

It’s why I’ve always admired the way the Premier League, Bundesliga and other top European leagues have determined their champions: Whichever side has the most points at the end of the year wins the championship. Simple as that.

The system allows soccer’s shocks to be felt — like when Swansea City topped Manchester United in August — but affords the best teams the opportunity to redeem themselves for their worst defeats, as evidenced by United’s position, just two points back of Manchester City and Arsenal. Teams are rewarded for being consistently good over the course of the season and won’t get punished for any one result.

But Major League Soccer’s champion-determining system is nothing like it.

Of the 20 teams in America’s top division, 12 make the playoffs. Forget about rewarding teams for consistent performance over a 34-game regular season — MLS simply rewards them for getting there, which 60 percent of teams do, and then playing well in November.

From the parallels to soccer’s other top leagues, it’s particularly dumb. In the Premier League, that would’ve meant Crystal Palace and West Ham United in a “playoff” last year.

For anyone that follows the league, that’d clearly be a mistake.

But MLS isn’t like the Premier League at all. It’s chiefly governed by a salary cap, unlike the high-spending EPL, instituting a certain level of parity to proceedings. Where Chelsea amassed 87 points to lead the Premier League last year in 38 games, the New York Red Bulls finished top of the regular-season standings in MLS this year with just 60 in 34 — a much weaker pace.

So these playoffs, I started to take a different look the league’s playoff system.

And they’re the best thing in soccer.

Turn the clock back to Oct. 29, when my beloved Portland Timbers hosted Sporting Kansas City in an elimination match to open the playoffs. Tensions were high, and after a 2-2 draw, the match went to penalty kicks.

Kicking second, Sporting had a couple chances to win the match — including one where the ball struck both posts but never crossed the line — and the penalties entered the 11th round. As any soccer fan knows, that’s when penalties get interesting: It means the goalies step up with the game on the line.

Timbers goalie Adam Kwarasey first scored, then saved his opponent’s spot kick, sending the Timbers through to the next round.

Fast-forward a couple weeks, and the drama of the playoffs showed once more.

After notching a 2-1 win in the first leg of a two-match playoff, the Seattle Sounders were sitting back, looking to kill off a 0-0 game at FC Dallas, a result that would send the Sounders through to the next round.

But in the 84th minute, Dallas forward Tesho Akindele scored to put the hosts ahead 1-0 on the game, a result that would qualify them for the conference finals. Game over, right?

Far from it.

Seattle’s Chad Marshall scored from a corner in the 90th minute, putting the Sounders back ahead on aggregate with just a couple minutes left in the match. Seconds later, they had been crashing out, but now they were moving on.

At least for a few seconds.

Straight from the restart, Dallas went after getting another goal to send the match to extra time — and Walker Zimmerman stepped up. Within the span of two minutes, both Dallas and Seattle were in a position to advance, before settling on the one result that brought up extra time, where after 30 scoreless minutes, FC Dallas won on penalties.

It was the kind of crazy drama that can only be created by a knockout tournament.

I still love the consistency it takes to win a title in the Premier League, undoubtedly.

But the MLS Cup Playoffs are the best thing in soccer. Hands down.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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