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Playoffs are here to stay — embrace them

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A revamp of the playoff system. A change to the MLS Cup format. These will all be things in front of the MLS competition committee.

Commissioner Don Garber announced Tuesday that MLS will be looking at the post-season system. Included in the talks:

A Looking at giving the right to host MLS Cup to the top seed involved in the game. The league looked at this last season, but was convinced to at least temporarily abandon the discussions after the city of Seattle rallied around a championship game involving Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles. VERDICT: Bad move. Sure, it’s great if the game is awarded to Jersey’s Red Bull Arena or the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. But what if the San Jose Earthquakes win the right to host the game at Buck Shaw Stadium? And, MLS isn’t yet big enough to create hype over a game that’s arranged at the last minute. It needs months to build towards a venue, a stadium. It’s not like the game has ever been played in front of an empty stadium.

B Expanding the number of playoff teams. VERDICT: Bad, bad, bad. Eight teams is enough. Now, if we want to talk about changing the complicated crossover system, which saw the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes move to the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, that’s a good discussion to have. With more western teams, Vancouver and Portland, coming in to MLS next season, teams in the central time zone and west will badly outnumber those in the East. But, even if the league grows to 20 teams, eight playoff sides is plenty. It’s always better to have a few decent miss the playoffs than allow a couple of bad teams in. It takes away the stigma of a No. 8 seed winning it all. This year, San Jose had a winning record, and was No. 8.

C Changing the playoff format. I’m in. A system where the first round is decided in a two-game aggregate series, but the second round is a single-game elimination is confusing.

Colorado Rapids striker Conor Casey, right, and coach Gary Smith practice ahead of MLS Cup. Low seeds like Colorado making the final is actually good for the league

Of course, whenever MLS talks about its playoff system, the so-called soccer purists will gripe and moan about abolishing the playoffs altogether. They’ll point to the fact that low seeds like Real Salt Lake in 2009 and Colorado in 2010 got to the final.

But the playoffs bring excitement to fans. And Garber said it is what made MLS unique in the soccer world, that each team has “to have a chance every year to win some hardware, and win a championship game.”

That’s one thing MLS has that Europe doesn’t. Look, if MLS becomes just like the big Euro Leagues — and only a couple of teams ever win titles — well, so much of the appeal goes out the window. MLS truly has an any given Saturday kind of feel.

And that’s the thing about MLS. Talk to people in the front office, and you know that they use the word “soccer” instead of “football.” They say “out of bounds” not “into touch.” The score is “one nothing” rather than “one nil.” The flavour the league wants is the world game, with a uniquely American, um, North American feel.

The biggest part of that is the playoff system. North American sports fans want championship games; they want to see a trophy held aloft on the final night of the season after a winner-take-all game.

The league’s philosophy isn’t going to change. And it’s not like MLS is the only league with a playoff system. Mexico does it, and you don’t hear a lot of the so-called purists howling about that. Australia’s A-League does it too. And the need to ask MLS over and over and over again about the possibility of going to a straight league table with no playoffs is as agonizingly annoying as a broken record.

And here’s something that might sound like blasphemy. There might be some of us soccer purists out there who actually wouldn’t mind to see the English Premier League decided in a playoff.

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