BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 11/13/2012

Thiel: A dumb playoff system thwarts Sounders

By playing two road games in different cities with only two days between, the Sounders were set up to fail by a goofy MLS playoff system that does not reward higher seeds.

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, celebrated in a tifo before a game against the Timbers this summer, will need a few cards up his sleeve to overcome the Galaxy Sunday. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Explain to me again, Major League Soccer, how the higher-seeded Sounders’ set-up the past weekend constituted a home-field advantage:

Win on the road in Salt Lake Thursday. Fly home Friday. Fly to Los Angeles Saturday. Lose on the road Sunday. Give the winning team a week to rest its aged bones while practicing standing across the goal shoulder-to-shoulder for 90 minutes.

That is a wretched way to determine a champion.

Not saying the circumstances were a sufficient excuse to lose 3-0 to the Galaxy as they did Sunday, but the Sounders took it in the bloomers on this ragingly goofy aggregate-goal format.

What the MLS home-and-home series comes down to is this: First goal wins.

The team that trails first tends to take more risks, because it’s harder to play catch-up in soccer than it is any other sport, including marriage. The aggregate-goal format merely aggravates the unfairness.

You don’t have to believe me. Listen to Bruce Arena, the longtime Galaxy coach and participant in many a boot rodeo, after the match Sunday.

“Obviously, the goal at the end of the half was certainly huge, and made a big difference,” Arena said. “Seattle pressed to get a goal, (which) opened things up and gave some talented players a little bit of room to help us get the second and third goals.”

To recap Sunday’s events, the Galaxy’s premier scorer, Robbie Keane, popped in a header in the single extra minute of first-half stoppage time for a 1-0 lead, which floored the Sounders. Desperate, they attacked, made defensive mistakes and let the Galaxy score in the 64th and 67th minutes.

As the Sounders deflated — 3-0 in soccer is like 40-0 in the NFL — the Galaxy had at least two more good scoring chances that easily could have made it 5-0 heading into the second game at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Clink.

While it can be said that the Sounders had only themselves to blame for the first goal, the fact is that the carry-over of a single mistake ripples through the second leg to an unfairly burdensome degree. And when the home-field advantage is defined by MLS rules as hosting the second game instead of the first, well . . .  the league has it bloody backward.

This season, the Sounders’ finish gave them the No. 3 seed. They beat No. 2 Real Salt Lake, which gave them “home-field advantage” in the second round over any lower-seeded opponent. At No. 4 was the Galaxy, which did a fine thing in beating No. 1 San Jose, but that does not alter the playoff reward. LA’s lower seed from a lesser regular-season record should have had a negative consequence, but instead favored LA by getting the first match at home against Seattle.

This is a bogus set-up for any team. What makes it galling for Seattle is that MLS for the first time extended the aggregate-goal format into the second round. Previously it was only a first-round aberration, designed to get a home gate for every playoff participant. But instead of outgrowing that baby-league strategy, MLS doubled down.

Seattle has whiffed on the agg-goal format its first three years in the playoffs. When the breakthrough came last week against RSL, the Sounders were rewarded with two days off between road games in two cities.

Make the post-season a best-of-three series or a single game. This home-and-home business is more awkward than moving a piano down five flights of stairs.

None of this is part of discussion of the moment for the Sounders, who are faced with an adrenalized task akin to the hoary bromide of a mother lifting a car off her child. Coach Sigi Schmid is attempting to hose down the panic.

“We have to understand that we have to score three goals in 90 minutes,” he said. “We don’t have to score three goals in five minutes or score three goals in 15. And for sure we don’t have to go hog wild scoring goals and giving up goals, because then we just have to score more goals.

“It’s important that we come out with a good mentality, a good work rate, a good effort, but also a good plan and patience.”

Is that all? While they’re at it, maybe add in some kindness and courtesy to their elders, like the Galaxy’s 37-year-old superstar, David Beckham — should he deign to fuss himself by making the trip to Seattle.

LA hardly needs him. They would be as well off to hire Kim Kardashian, turn her around and have her ample backside in goal to fill any gaps between 10 teammates standing in a row to deny the Sounders.

Absurd? No more than the aggregate-goal format and a home-field advantage that isn’t.


  • GDawg

    The aggregate goal format is terrible. It does not matter to me that other Countries and Leagues do this, a two game series makes no sense. It should be one game per round. If the MLS is so desparate for the gate $$$, then they should go to a 3 game series, not aggregate goals.

  • Liggie

    I hate the two-game setup, but it’s here because that’s the soccer standard for things like Champions League playoffs, World Cup qualifying, etc. Instead of a three-game series, which would take too long, I’ve advocated the “page” playoff system, a one-game setup but where the higher seeds aren’t immediately eliminated after an early loss.

    Here’s a sample for a four-team “page”, with home teams listed first per soccer custom:

    First round: 1 vs. 2, winner gets bye; 3 vs. 4, loser out
    Second round: 1-2 loser vs. 3-4 winner, loser out
    Third round: 1st-round 1-2 winner vs. 2nd-round winner, loser out

    This way, you get the drama of a knockout system, but are also fairer to the top seeds. 1 and 2 are guaranteed home games, and they don’t go home early in case of a Cleveland St.-Indiana trip, while 3 and 4 face elimination immediately. This gives the better team real home-field advantages (more gates, less travel) and is a better reward for regular-season success.

    • Liggie

      Example from this year’s West playoffs: 1 San Jose hosts 2 Sallt Lake, and 3 Seattle hosts 4 LA. Assuming the higher seeds win, LA goes home, RSL stays alive but hosts Seattle in a loser-out game, and SJ gets a week to rest before they host the RSL-SEA winner for the championship decider. This way, SJ gets two games at home, RSL a home game and a mulligan, while SEA and LA face the chopping block immediately. Do this for the East as well (1 KC vs. 2 DC, 3 NY vs. 4 CHI, and play on from there), and you’ve got your MLS Cup matchup.

      I’d say this is MUCH fairer and exciting.

    • Tim

      The two game setup is used in those tournaments because it is neutral. it offers almost 0 home field advantage to either team. it is a terrible way to run a playoff system in which the higher seed is supposed to be rewarded.

  • silverbeaver

    I’m tired of making excuses for this team. We can be great, but we got beat – badly. Let’s call it what it is.

    • Liggie

      Yes, the Sounders laid an egg. But when all four “home” teams in the last round all lost, and the two “home” teams in this round are in big trouble, something says this ain’t right. We could end up with a 4 seed hosting a 5 seed for MLS Cup, which is dumbfounding. The aggregate system for MLS stinks.

      • art thiel

        Thanks for adding to the discussion, Liggie. The evidence grows.

    • art thiel

      True dat, silver. The format was part of the reason, but talent, as with all sports, is always the primary difference.

  • 3 Lions

    The MLS playoff format is a joke.(BCS is slightly worse) They play all season & then are subjected to a two day break between the most important games of the year? For that matter, the season is too long in the first place & would be better off ending in late September. The league needs meaningful home field advantage, adequate rest between the games & a single game format that puts the pressure on one match to encourage attacking soccer (FA Cup). Is Art acquirung a taste for footi?

    • art thiel

      I played s little soccer as a kid, but as an adult, I decided to try to suspend comparisons and take the game on its own. I’ve enjoyed it, but its the fans who embraced soccer here that compels the media marketplace to pay attention.

  • Matt712

    Yeah, it’s unfortunate. The aggregate goal system tends to make matches very defense-oriented which, to even a soccer fan (let alone a greedy American sports fan), is pretty damn tough to sit through 90+ minutes of. That said, it’s inexcusable to allow 3 goals in tournament play, particularly with that system.

    To Art’s point, If I’m L.A., I probably wouldn’t even put a striker in the game. The match is going to be a kind of ridiculous lopsided affair played on half of a field – no runs, definitely no break-aways, and a bout a million set pieces. Not the best way to grow the sport in America.

    • art thiel

      I don’t expect MLS to compromise its game in order to sell it to offense-oriented Americans. But this isn’t about the nature of the game as much as a postseason format that plays to the game’s least attractive elements. Fans of American football don’t care to watch punting contests either.

  • artie

    The aggregate system (2 legged tie) is the fairest and most appropriate system to use when you have a tournament without seeding. This is why it is used in the Champions
    League. There is no fair way to seed teams that don’t play in the same league. However, MLS playoffs are seeded and the aggregate system is not appropriate because it doesn’t give the higher seed an advantage.

    Don’t blame the aggregate system on soccer or other leagues. No respectable league in the world would have this joke of a playoff system. Yes, Liga MX (Mexican League) has a 2 legged playoff system, but if it ends in a tie, the higher seed move on. At least the higher seed gets an advantage.

    The only reason MLS did this is for money. They have shown time after time that they are willing to sacrifice the integrity of their league for a little more money.

  • Joe.Fan

    For me, if a team has home field advantage in an aggregate scoring playoff series, both games should be played ay the high seed’s home field. That is the only way that high seed has an appropriate advantage.

  • Matt R.

    I agree…sort of. I think they should have games a week apart like they do in Champions League in Europe. This 2 days apart thing is crazy. The wild card winner should get screwed and only get 3 days between wild card game win and a Playoff Game against the top seed. You should punish the team that didn’t finish in the top 3. After that, the games should be a week apart for the best quality in games. DC United was in the same situation in the East and got their clock cleaned as well. DC and Seattle were the highest seeds to advance, and had to play on the road on 2 days rest while the lower seeds (Houston and LA) got 3 days rest and home field.

    MLS Playoffs are not quite ready for primetime!