Could someone in the MLS front office please suggest doing away with the notion that conferences have anything to do with the MLS Cup Playoffs?
Two years ago, the New York Red Bulls, an Eastern Conference club, were declared Western Conference Champions after they sneaked into the playoffs as the 8th seed and stormed past the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake to reach the MLS Cup Final. Last year, Real Salt Lake did that in reverse and were named Eastern Conference Champions. This year, it’s going to happen again, as two Western Conference clubs — the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes — will compete in the “Eastern Conference Final.”
The fact that MLS is still using conference designations after that silliness with New York two years ago is confounding. Conferences have nothing to do with the final four playoff bids in MLS. The top two clubs from each conference get seeded, and after that, the next-best four clubs — based on points and regardless of conference — get the last four bids.
This year, Western Conference clubs boasted six of the best eight records in MLS. As a result, Colorado and San Jose got shipped to the Eastern side of the bracket. The strength of the Western Conference was evident; the Earthquakes knocked off the Red Bulls, while the Rapids advanced on penalties against the Columbus Crew.
But calling Colorado v. San Jose an “Eastern Conference Final?” Really? Look at that map. Those two clubs are east of what? Honoulu? Anchorage? Auckland? Does Don Garber allow this absurdity to continue because he thinks there’s no other way to get people talking about MLS Cup?
At some point, MLS needs to stop this nonsense and clarify its playoff format. Either the best 8 teams overall get in, or the best 4 from each conference get in. Maybe the latter scenario will be more likely once each conference has ten clubs, which is expected to happen by 2013. Then the league can start getting fans excited about their clubs earning a top-four finish. After all, football fans in England, Spain and Italy want their clubs to finish in the top four, right? See what I did there?
Until then, let’s just call Colorado v. San Jose what it is — a cup semifinal. And hey, the winner gets a CONCACAF Champions League bid. Get excited, Eastern contenders!