Robert Jonas: A Roll of the Dice

Friday, November 12, 2010 | View Comments
Stock Quotes And Dice

by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

"The postseason partially explained why baseball was so uniquely resistant to the fruits of scientific research: to ANY purely rational idea about how to run a baseball team. It wasn’t just that the game was run by old baseball men who insisted on doing things as they had always been done. It was that the season ended in a giant crapshoot. The playoffs frustrate rational management because, unlike the long regular season, they suffer from the sample size problem. Over a long season, the luck evens out, and the skill shines through. But in a series of three out of five, or even four out of seven, anything can happen..."

The quote above by Michael Lewis from his book Moneyball tries to capture the idea that the playoff system in Major League Baseball does not lend itself to predictable results. If you finish the regular season with the best record in the league — maybe winning 60% of your games — you then need to survive a gauntlet of short series to win a championship. While being the best team entering the playoffs may give you a slight advantage over your opponents, statistical records show that the better team advances through each series at a rate approaching 55%. Basically, you have to survive three coin-flips to be granted the right to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy.

This situation is not unique in professional sports in the United States. A familiar story is written annually in all sports, as we are treated to witnessing the determination and grit of an underdog team overcoming all odds to make the final championship game. We rally behind these teams and enjoy relating to their workmanlike effort. We relish in seeing the mighty brought back to earth and the long shots getting to taste victory in the face of overwhelming odds. Statistically, these stories should not be surprising, but we continue to be seduced by the narrative parable that anything is possible.

And that is why I love the MLS Cup playoffs. Yes, I have some quibbles with the format, by really those are just semantic complaints that speak more to my desire to see more postseason games. What I don’t want to see are changes made that attempt to further increase the advantages higher seeds have in reaching the Final. Simply put, I enjoy the uncertainty that comes from watching the eight best teams in the league battle it out for the Cup.

I am not buying into the chatter that the higher seeded teams are punished with the current playoff format used by MLS. Frankly, I find it to be a na├»ve opinion for those that want to see the postseason become a coronation ceremony to reward the team with the regular season’s best record — MLS already awards the Supporters Shield for that honor. The playoffs are better viewed as a reward for the teams that succeeded over a hard fought season and finished in the top eight of the standings. Follow that up with a hot November, and you get to enjoy the spoils of winning the Philip F. Anschutz trophy and adding a star above your team crest.

In the landscape of American sports, the MLS playoffs system is no different than for the NFL, the NBA, MLB, or the NHL — collect the best regular season teams and let them go at it in a short-form tournament. In some sense the regular season can be thought of as a long qualifying process — a more statistically fair way to separate the better teams from the lesser teams. The fact that the best finisher in the regular season does not always emerge victorious in the postseason tournament is irrelevant — I don’t see this in any way diminishing the regular season at all. In the case of MLS, especially as the league grows in size and the percentage of teams that survive the qualification process, we are already seeing teams place importance on nearly every game played. In 2010, helped in part by seeing just half the teams in MLS make the postseason, we saw the first case in the league’s 15 year history of all playoff qualified teams holding a better than 50% winning percentage. Each one of the eight qualifiers this season has a legitimate claim to the playoff title.

So, entering the third weekend of the MLS Cup playoffs, we are down to four remaining teams playing for the right to travel to Toronto for the Final. And by virtue of the playoff bracket, one of those finalists will be a team with either the 7th or 8th record in the regular season. The Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes finished the season with an identical number of points, but by virtue of the second tiebreaker after head-to-head record — goal differential for all leagues games — the Rapids were seeded above the Quakes. As such, the MLS Cup Final will for the third straight year feature a team with the lowest regular season point total of all postseason-qualified teams taking on a higher seed.

And what is so wrong with that? When the New York Red Bulls made the Final in 2008 and Real Salt Lake in 2009, we were still treated to a compelling championship match. All the hand wringing over RSL winning the title last season as a #8 seed subsided as people recognized them as a team worthy of representing the best of MLS. This year, the 2009 runner up Los Angeles Galaxy swept through the regular season to snare the top seed and are poised to make the Final again. And still, for the Galaxy to have a chance to make amends for last year’s loss to a lower seed, they still need to survive against FC Dallas this Sunday evening — no guarantees there.

Los Angeles earned the Supporters Shield for their fantastic regular season — an award I respect greatly, and wish other American sports leagues would institute in some form or another — and could add to that success with an MLS Cup. If they fail to make the Final, and another low seed wins the Cup for the second straight year, so be it. That is what the playoffs accomplish on a year-to-year basis — an unpredictable, yet entertaining road to the league championship. And I enjoy every minute of it.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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