Near the end of Major League Soccer's All-Star game earlier this month, Peter Nowak screamed at Freddy Adu for taking the ball toward goal and not the corner flag. Joe Cannon took so long to blast a stoppage-time goal kick upfield that Jose Mourinho comically mocked him afterward in his postgame presser. But perhaps the fist pumps, hugs and high fives MLS players shared following their 1-0 win over mighty Chelsea said it best: To them, this friendly match had been anything but meaningless.
Problem is, the games that actually count in the MLS standings rarely feature this level of passion and intensity. That one of the longest regular seasons in American professional team sports is rendered virtually meaningless by the league's playoff format is one of the biggest knocks against the 11-year-old circuit. And this criticism comes not only from fans and pundits, but from players, coaches and former national team managers alike.
"Most of the regular-season games mean nothing. The players are not motivated, and in reality the games don't mean a lot until the last month of the season. And players only get better when they play real games all the time."
Remember that quote? Those words were among the comments Bruce Arena made two years ago to the The New York Times, the ones that so infuriated commissioner Don Garber that he wanted the boss' head on a stick. However, Arena was right, and even though MLS has since formed a competition committee (which includes Arena and which met in Chicago over All-Star weekend) to address such matters, nothing has been done to fix the situation.
In fairness, the puzzle is not easily solved in boardrooms or on message boards. Many have suggested reducing the number of playoff places. That's not going to happen. Eight clubs have made the postseason each year since the league's inception, and the suits have always maintained that the lopsided ratio of playoff versus non-playoff teams will be evened out by the eventual expansion to the desired 16 teams.
However, a better argument to keep the status quo numbers-wise is this: With four or even six playoff qualifiers and without a promotion-relegation system (which will never, ever happen, just in case you're one of the dreamers), many teams would likely be out of the playoff hunt by August, resulting in even more summer snoozers.
The other popular quick fix proposal? Adopting a single table. But even with the promised 14 teams in 2008, it doesn't make any sense. With that many teams, each club would play just 26 games annually if it met every other side home and away. New soccer stadiums are popping up across the land, and you better believe the brass isn't going to consider losing three home dates annually per team, even for a couple seasons. Maybe by 2010 this will be feasible, but then you have to figure out how to link the season to the MLS Cup playoffs. Because there will always be playoffs.
Instead of just explaining why certain suggestions are flawed and won't work, here are three simple changes that might be worth contemplating. They offer a way to keep eight teams in the playoffs so both fans and players will believe their .500 squads still have a chance to pull a Galaxy and go on a Cup run after Labor Day.
This format allows MLS to keep its conference setup and with it the more frequently played rivalry games like N.Y.-D.C. and L.A.-Chivas. It maintains a 30-plus-game regular season but instantly makes it more important (and hopefully, games more hotly contested). But most significant, it actually rewards teams for what they have accomplished over the previous six-and-a-half months. Here goes:
1. Retain separate conferences, but award postseason berths to the top eight point-getters in the league. The top seed plays the eighth, two plays seven and so on. MLS did this in 2000 and '01 when three divisions were used. It would also help to balance things out when one conference is clearly weaker, like the West was in 2005.
2. Go to a single-game knockout format throughout the playoffs, with matches hosted by the higher seeds. Tell me, what sense does it make to have a two-game quarterfinal followed by a one-game semi? And why on earth does a lower-seeded side deserve a home game? MLS needs to consider that fans who have suffered through a subpar season don't expect very much from their team at playoff time, and many choose to stay home. Plus, group sales always suffer on short notice. Attendance during first-round, first-leg games is historically atrocious: In 2004, the four games drew an average of 8,382 spectators.
And of course, the current system ignores the fact that it is also patently silly to have a home-and-home series after teams jockey for position in the standings over 32 contests. Let's not kid ourselves, there is currently no advantage for earning a better record, especially when the reward for a superior season is to open the playoffs on the road. Just ask the former Earthquakes, the Supporter's Shield winners who never recovered from an unlucky first-leg loss in L.A. last year.
3. The higher seed needs only a tie to advance. That's right, the underdog has to go into enemy territory and win. No bunkering, no playing for PKs. You've got to attack and risk being burned on the counter. This system has been used successfully in Mexico's top league for years. Detractors might argue that an eighth-seed needs only to get a fortunate call or a lucky bounce in a single game to pull a major upset. But that only adds drama and intrigue, which after all, is what the beautiful game is all about. If the last qualifier can go into the likes of RFK Stadium with a one-goal handicap and come out with a W, it deserves to move on. Then it would have to do it again to reach the final.
And maybe, on steamy summer Saturdays, teams will kick, scrap and claw like the All-Stars did against the Premiership champs, doing everything possible to make sure they doesn't put themselves in such a precarious situation in October.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.