Anyone who thinks Major League Soccer needs to scrap its current format in favor of a single table that crowns a champion based on regular-season performance needs a lobotomy. In my best Hank Williams Jr., "Are you ready for some MLS playoffs?"
With about two games per team left in the 2009 schedule, two teams are mathematically eliminated from qualifying for the playoffs. Using an abacus, we therefore can deduct that 13 teams are reasonably vying for eight playoff slots. Since only four have clinched, that means nine teams are battling for the remaining berths -- these final games of the season really mean something.
Sure, Europe has promotion and relegation, which never will happen here, but the thrill of the playoffs makes MLS exciting and relevant.
This is exactly why MLS keeps the playoffs as the system for determining its champion. Look no further than 2008, when the eighth-seeded Red Bulls made a magical run past defending champion Houston in the first round and upset Real Salt Lake to reach the club's first MLS Cup. Based on regular-season points, New York was muddled in the middle of the league and the Eastern Conference. The run captured the attention of the New York media, many members of which made their first visits to Red Bulls practice to cover the team in the lead-up to the MLS Cup. The buildup to the Cup was worth every penny to the team in terms of public relations and branding.
There's more to the playoffs than that, however.
To the Eurosnob, the idea of a playoff is as foreign as the shootout system of MLS, circa '96. In England, for example, the FA Cup provides the type of knock-out excitement the MLS playoffs provide, in which a less-heralded or smaller club can take on the big boys -- and sometimes beat them. Regular-season play is methodical and pure arithmetic. You win and earn points; the club with the most points at the end of the season lifts the trophy.
The fact that the U.S. Open Cup has failed to really take hold in this country, even among the hard-core fans, means a playoff system to crown the MLS champion is not redundant to much of the soccer public. In the England example, a playoff system on the scale and scope of MLS' would be almost similar to another FA Cup. In the United States, however, the playoffs really create a second season. They also give clubs on the outside a shot at something real.
This summer, there was very little for FC Dallas to play for, as the team was mired among the bottom three in MLS. Then, after the all-star break in August, the club caught fire and won six of 10, amassing 19 points over that stretch to double its tally on the season. The hot streak has propelled the team into the playoff hunt, meaning that the club has something to play for.
The hope for FC Dallas is that the team can replicate the efforts of New York last year and reach the final. Similar tales of Cinderella teams going to the MLS Cup on inspiring runs -- such as Colorado in 1997 and New England in 2002 -- give impetus to FC Dallas' push. Only five times in league history, out of 13 MLS Cup finals, has the league's top team in the regular season won the final game to hoist the trophy.
Without the playoffs, FC Dallas would be playing out the string with no hope for earning enough points to challenge for the regular-season crown. With the playoffs in sight, it now has something to shoot for. FC Dallas is really shooting to play in the second season -- where anything can happen.
It might not be the way they do it in Europe or South America, but it is the way it is here. And that, in fact, is a good thing.
Stat of the week
For his game-winning goal -- and an assist earlier in the game -- Jeff Cunningham was named the MLS player of the week. It was the fourth time this season he was given the award, and Cunningham leads the league with the most weekly honors. If the MVP award is truly about who is most valuable, consider this: No other member of FC Dallas has won the honor this season.
Quote of the week
"Conor has played very well in Major League Soccer lately. His movement and ability to hold the ball and bring people into the game has been good. We just felt the fact that he's been playing regularly and the quality that he brings would be important at the beginning of the game."
-- U.S. men's national team coach Bob Bradley on why he started forward Conor Casey on Saturday night in the World Cup qualifier against Honduras. Casey scored twice, his first international goals, to lead the U.S. to a 3-2 victory.
• Chivas USA sure took a lot of flak upon entering the league five years ago with brash promises of turning MLS upside down. However, the club quickly learned to adapt to MLS after a travesty of a first year. This past Saturday, Chivas USA clinched a playoff spot for the fourth straight season.
• Without six regular starters in the lineup and playing the last 25 minutes of the game down a man, the Crew beat New England 1-0 on Saturday night. Columbus' massive performance earned it another Eastern Conference regular-season title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
• It's becoming a trend in Toronto -- the team once again outshot an opponent at home, registering twice as many shots on goal, but mustered just a 1-1 tie against San Jose. The Reds are seeing their once-promising playoff hopes dwindle.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and writes for the New York daily paper Metro. He can be reached at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com.
New York vs. Real Salt Lake
Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
10 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com