Odd Weekend of Playoffs Exposes the Worst Flaw of the MLS


For those of us that follow a major European team, there is a weekly pattern that develops over the season.  After the weekend game, many fans like myself spend a couple of days absorbing commentary about the game.  Youtube is scoured for clips and the blogs are mined for insights.  If your team happens to have won, the triumph is celebrated.  The coach’s decisions are lauded and your man-of-the-match is hailed as a legend.  A draw or loss unleashes a torrent of what-could-have-beens and there is always one player who failed to convert a chance or had a defensive lapse that is labeled as completely useless forever.

After a couple of days of looking backwards, the eyes move forward and the upcoming game becomes all consuming.  Injury lists, manager’s comments and possible line-ups are devoured.  On the day of the game the anticipation begins the moment we wake up.  The game itself is a series of life or-death moments, and then the entire cycle repeats itself.

This pattern repeats itself all season for one over-riding reason – every game matters.  From winning the Championship to avoiding relegation, every game is impactful.  We may be six months from the end of the European season, but nobody looks farther than this weekend’s game because they all matter so much.

The same cannot be said of the MLS.  As much as I enjoy having a US league, random games over the summer come and go like the waves on a beach.  Half the teams are going to make playoffs anyway, so the pressure is modest and the pain of losing and the joy of winning are mitigated.  Do-or-die games rarely occur during the regular season until the last couple of weeks.  For the  teams that qualify for the playoffs with a month to go, they can go through the entire season without ever having a game that truly, deeply mattered.

So, when we finally get to the playoffs, and the results are vital, players walk out onto the field looking nervy, tentative and flat.  They are so unused to meaningful games that they look like completely different, and in many cases poorer, teams. 

Among the lowlights from this weekend –

Seattle’s and Houston’s finishing completely deserted them.  There were plenty of chances on both sides, but the scoreless draw resulted from a combination of club-footed finishing and an atmosphere where physical play replaced a level of skill that seems to have deserted most players.

Real Salt Lake, one of the few teams that had a series of do-or-die games over the past month, beat defending champions Columbus, who have not played a meaningful game since the last MLS Cup.  RSL looked sharper and fitter, and hung in all game until they took their best chance in the 88th minute against a flat-footed Crew.

Chivas USA and the LA Galaxy, two very defensively minded teams , conspired to let in two goals each because silly defensive errors.  The most comical goal of the weekend occurred when the usually dependable Omar Gonzalez, playing in his first playoff game, passed the ball back to nobody in particular, and playoff debutante Sean Franklin stood there while Maykel Galindo raced onto the ball and slotted it home. 

The only game that resembled a well-played affair was the New England – Chicago game and it is not a surprise.  These are two veteran teams that have made meeting in the playoffs an annual ritual over the past few years.  These two teams have had several must-win situations over the past month and have enough play-off experience so that they were able to muster something closer to their “A” games.

Hopefully next weekend the play-off butterflies will be better contained and we can see a few more impressive games.  However, under its current scheme, most MLS teams will always meander into the post-season unused to pressure, and will start their play-off run learning how to play important games all over again.

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