Home Uncategorized The new MLS playoff tiebreaker… what were they thinking?

The new MLS playoff tiebreaker… what were they thinking?

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When MLS began play this season with its new unbalanced schedule, it had a problem. If two teams in the same conference ended up being tied for a playoff spot, they would need a new tiebreaker in order to determine who gets top billing.

You see, MLS had been using the best possible system — head-to-head record, which is superior to goal-difference in every which way (more on that later). But, under the new imbalanced schedule, teams that are tied in the standings would have faced each other three times in a season, not two. And that meant that one team would have the advantage of having those two of three games at home. So, head-to-head was no longer a fair first tiebreaker.

Easy enough, we all think. Simply use best conference record as the top tiebreaker and move on. Five-minute meeting, tops. It’s a fair system, still based on the principle of head-to-head competition, and it offers a decent measuring stick for the two teams tied in the standings. It would also likely come in handy in the case of a three-way tie.

But, this is MLS — a league that, despite its best and most valiant attempts to appease soccer traditionalists, can’t quite put the ghosts of mini-games, shootout and video-game team uniforms (remember the San Jose Clash?) to bed. After all, this is a league that still continues to confuse fans with secret allocation money, and waits for the union to announce salaries (even though it’s a salary-cap league, so salaries are key to fan interest). So, instead of best conference record, the tiebreaker system was designed to be more complicated than it needed.

Here it is, as follows:
1) Most total goals scored
2) Greatest goal differential
3) Fewest disciplinary points
4) Most road goals scored
5) Greatest road goal differential
6) Most home goals scored
7) Greatest home goal differential
8) Coin toss (for 2 teams) or drawing of lots (3 or more teams)

Total goals scored (not goal difference) is now the measuring stick. So, if the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Vancouver Whitecaps finish tied in the standings (a possibility, as the Whitecaps are one point up on the Galaxy), the determination between who finishes fourth and fifth (and would host the wild-card game) would go down to goals scored. The Galaxy have scored 13 more goals than the Whitecaps, even though their goal difference is separated by just two.

The system was announced Wednesday, which makes it more confusing for fans. This is the kind of stuff that has to be made public before Game 1.

It’s understandable that MLS wants to create a system that promotes scoring; but there are better ways to do that than create a tiebreaker system that discounts how many goals your team actually gives up.

Want to increase scoring? Try to avoid playing games in 30 C-plus heat, which slows down the game. MLS is a summer league, and we shouldn’t change that. North America’s climate makes it impossible to have a winter schedule and have teams in the league from the Rockies and northern U.S. (all three Canadian teams have dome options). But, we shouldn’t be piling all the midweek and extra matches into July and August, when the players are being physically punished by the heat. More and more sports marketers say that playing games when people have time off — i.e., mid-summer — doesn’t really help boost the gate, because so many people with disposable income use that time to get away. Play the extra games in the spring and fall and you will have a more entertaining product. A better product sells tickets.

A for the tiebreaker, head-to-head is the best system; it’s what’s used in the Champions League. It’s what used in many major European leagues, with the notable exceptions of England and Scotland. Goal difference is flawed because it can swing on the most random of results. If a good team is resting players because it has a Champions League match three days away, it might only beat a bottom-feeder 1-0 or 2-0, when a contender that catches the minnow in a better part of the schedule might win 5-0. Many scores are padded late in matches, when the losing team presses forward. So, a team that might only deserve a 1-0 win ends up with a 2-0 or a 3-0. Goal difference is based on so many random, non-competitive events, that it’s not a worthy way of breaking ties. Some of these examples also apply to the goals-scored system.

I was always a big backer of MLS using the head-to-head system. The league has done well to abolish conference-to-conference crossovers. But the league’s governors have voted in a tiebreaker system that’s more suited to a video game than a legitimate league. Tiebreaker by conference record would have been a fair way to decide ties, and keeps the spirit of head-to-head. Teams would be judged on similar criteria.

MLS does many things that is progressive. People like to go on about the officiating in this league, but people go on about the officiating in every league. MLS fines and suspends players for diving, something other leagues are afraid to do. It juggles North American sensibilities (the need for playoffs and a championship game) with tradition (soccer fans are OK with ties, so modern MLS games don’t have overtimes or shootouts).

But MLS needs to curb any urges to return to 1996 — and this goals-for tiebreaker, while just a small part of the rulebook, is, unfortunately, just that.

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