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MLS Decision Day offers pros, cons for playoffs

Tuesday 24th October 2017
Major League Soccer's Decision Day is in the books. There was at least one shock to the system. But the completed 2017 MLS table makes more than one point.

Fair warning. You're about to read an article regarding football (soccer) as played in North America. If you live in Europe, your leagues and clubs do things differently. Lo mismo aplica para ustedes ultras en el otro lado del muro imaginario de Trump. What I'm saying is everyone does football in their own manner. That's what makes it interesting. Purity is an elitist concept for people lacking imagination.

In Europe, a league-sized round robin known as a season determines the champion. Many South and Central American leagues split the season into two symmetric halves, Apertura and Clausura, with a playoff at the end determining el Campeon.

Of the two, I prefer the European version. It's fair. It's balanced. But it's not Faux News. If a club posts the best record against all comers, it should be recognised as the best.
Born and raised in North America, however, I'm accustomed to competitions where the regular season means nothing. Nada. Bupkis. All the best record in quasi-meaningful regular season games affords is home-field/ice/pitch advantage in the playoffs, which, let's be honest, is not much for the time put in.

Some teams, in fact, prefer to pace themselves to have something left for the playoffs. They're willing to sacrifice home advantage if it means they're better geared for the playoff grind. Whereas the Premier League is a marathon with a finish line, the NFL, NBA, NHL, as well as the Major Leagues Baseball and Soccer are more like a WWE Royal Rumble. It doesn't matter whether you're the first entrant and run roughshod over all save the last opponent. It's the final battle that matters. Nothing else. It's all very Highlander. There can be only one.

So, what is the point of watching the entire season unfold? Good question. I'm not certain I have an answer. It's true many fans tend to seek other entertainment when their team is not in the playoff picture. Bandwagons do a brisk business this side of the Atlantic. Then again, Chicago Cubs fans were proud to be "lovable losers" for over a century until finally winning it all, last year. And you Cork City fans thought you had waited an eternity these last twelve years? Please.

Over the next few weeks, it won't matter that one MLS team was punctual in the extreme while others waited until MLS' version of the last minute, Decision Day, to show up. All that will matter is who wins the final match. Still, I don't get paid if I don't write anything until then, so here are a few interesting situations staring out from the final league table.

Wrong time, right place



Toronto FC has been in Major League Soccer since 2007. Its first playoff appearance didn't come until 2015. Like most naive newbies, the Reds were eliminated in the first round. Last year, they made it to the MLS Cup. Sadly, fewer people remember the losing finalist in MLS Cups than the final wrestler to go over the top rope in the Royal Rumble. That's why anything less than a victory at BMO Field on 9 December will make this season just another failure for the Reds.

Greg Vanney's side ran away with the Supporters' Shield this season. His side set a new mark for the regular season, one better than the 1998 LA Galaxy, two better than the 2011 Angelinos, and three better than the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes. In 34 games, TFC posted 20 wins and nine draws. They can match the most dangerous sides goal for goal.
Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Co also lost five matches, however. Winning a pair of two-legged ties then a one-off final is completely different than managing a season. There is very little room for error. Of the 22 Supporters Shield winners, only six have followed through to win the MLS Cup.

Right time, wrong place



The 2017 San Jose Earthquakes are nothing like the dominant 2012 version. The current squad has one more match in its loss column than the win. Its goal differential is fourth worst in the league. None of the four other sides, LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Minnesota and DC United, that leaked at a rate of -20 or lower even sniffed the playoffs. Chris Leitch's team is the only one to score less than forty goals yet still reach the post-season.

To be fair, Sporting Kansas City only just made the 40-goal threshold. Their playoff spot was secured by a defence that only conceded 29, though. San Jose let in 60. To do that and still qualify demonstrates an uncanny sense for the moment. The Earthquakes made every goal count.
Fittingly, these lucky underdogs claimed their place with an injury-time goal from Marco Urena against Minnesota.

Unlucky number seven



Newton's Third Law (sort of) states that for every inexplicable victor there is an unexpectedly vanquished rival. San Jose's mad celebration was the flip side to FC Dallas' shocking elimination. After being in the Supporters' Shield conversation for several seasons, this wasn't Oscar Pareja's best year in Big D. His side only finished all square on goals scored and conceded after a 5-1 Decision Day romp over lowly LA Galaxy. So, in both senses of the word, the result proved they do everything big in Texas, even winning and losing.

In a European league, FCD would finish above San Jose on goal difference. In Major League Soccer, however, wins are the first tie-breaker. The Earthquakes were two better in that department. Perhaps that seems unfair. On the other hand, the playoffs are about winning matches. San Jose proved they could do that more often than Dallas. In at least one sense, the Quakes are where they belong.

Misty Mountain hop



The Pacific Northwest is a sliver of land between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean. It rains as much, if not more, than in England. The passion for football in the region also rivals British fans. Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, and Vancouver Whitecaps fans were richly rewarded for said passion in 2017. The three franchises, which all date back to the defunct NASL, topped the Western Conference table.

The two American sides receive byes into the conference semifinals. Vancouver must deal with opportunistic San Jose in a one-off match at BC Place. Chris Robinson's side is just the type the 'Quakes have exploited in 2017: reliable attack, unreliable defending. Those moments when Vancouver loses focus are the ones on which San Jose thrives.
While San Jose only won three on the road, it doesn't bode well that the Whitecaps are one of two playoff sides not to reach double digits in home wins.

Bridesmaids



If you include Houston Dynamo, nowhere near any mountains, just four points separated the top four sides in the Western Conference. In the East, TFC ran away with the top spot but four teams finished in the four-point knot that tied second place to fifth.

NYCFC, aka Man City Lite, eked out the first-round bye that comes with a second-place finish. Patrick Vieira's success has many touting him for a European return. The Frenchman allegedly declined St Etienne's interest in the summer because he is "content" in New York.

Who wouldn't be? Although Vieira just had backroom experience with Man City on his CV, only Tata Martino's managerial pedigree surpasses his own. Even better, he's been able to write Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, and David Villa onto his starting sheet during his tenure. Playing at Yankee Stadium, as City does, it's actually a good thing only one from the three has been a hit.
Villa has been a home run, though. Only TFC's Sebastian Giovinco has been a more potent threat in the past few seasons. It seems likely the two are destined to face off for a chance to represent the Eastern Conference at the MLS Cup.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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