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MLS Cup Final: More Than Simply #8v9

After Houston and LA clinched their spots in an MLS Cup Final rematch, fans took to Twitter to speak out against the injustice of the current playoff format. While we can argue ad nauseum on the merits of the American playoff system, one fact remains clear - based on the current format, LA and Houston are the teams most deserving of a return to the MLS Cup Final.

Toby Canham

I suppose I should start by explaining why I'm bothering to write this piece. It started shortly after LA defeated Seattle in the Western Conference Finals, setting up a rematch with the Houston Dynamo. Whether in jest or not, Charles Boehm tweeted:

This was picked up by Luis Bueno, who briefly championed the idea of #8v9. While everything has quieted down a bit, I assume the run-up to the Final will see an increase in this sentiment from fan bases not represented in the match. The idea is simple: a tournament that is supposed to weed out the best from the worst, but ends up with the two "worst" teams in the final, is flawed. To bolster this claim, people have noted that this is the worst combined regular season record represented in the MLS Cup Final, and that in the old format (cue nostalgic music) Houston would have watched the entire tournament from their couches. They've also noted the fact that lower seeds are 7-5-2 this year, despite home teams being given the advantage of playing second. This has led to some suggesting that playing second isn't an advantage, but rather a disadvantage. All of this taken together, while mixing in the grief of being knocked out of the playoffs, and you get to the conclusion that the playoffs are not only unfair, but should be changed completely to more strongly favor the higher seeds.

And on all of these counts, all I can say is this - wake up, and grow up.

If you have any problem with lower seeds participating in the tournament, then the only logical choice would be to make the MLS Cup Final a one-off between the West and East Conference champions. In my humble recollection, I believe the only sporting organization that does that currently is the BCS (not exactly a popular choice, albeit for other reasons, leading the league to expand to a 4-team playoff).The reason is simple: they are assuming that because MLS is a soccer league, it should follow European standards. This league, however, follows an American standard for deciding the "best" team in the league - a standard that employs a postseason playoff. This system rewards teams that build momentum at the end of the season over those that have been consistent throughout the season. Is that fair? Of course not. But because you are participating in this league, you have to accept the fact that being the best doesn't mean you will be handed a trip to the Final. Look at the New York Giants in 2009 and 2011, the Green Bay Packers in 2010, and MLB's San Francisco Giants in 2012. All were low seeds, who built momentum while beating the best teams along the way to their respective championships. Come the beginning of the next season, would anyone argue that any of them weren't among the best in the league? Of course not. They just chose the perfect time of the year to get hot. Similarly, Houston beat Chicago, SKC, and DCU on their way to the final, while LA beat Vancouver, San Jose, and Seattle.

Granted, aside from Houston's match in Chicago (a team that had only lost 3 times at home this season), all of these games were part of a home and away series.

That brings me to my favorite part of the whole #8v9 problem. If the lower seeds are winning all of these series while playing at home first, then it must be advantageous to play the first leg at home. What's happening is that people, harboring a sense of injustice, are seeing a correlation between the two variables, and implying that some causation is present. Now, correlation sometimes does indicate causation, but needs to be backed up in fact. That the home/away series is advantageous to the lower seed, however, is vastly one-dimensional, and is ignoring many truths about this year's playoffs. From an LA standpoint, some are forgetting that the second half of their season was brilliant (10-3-4 record). If the seeding was based on that, they would be near top in the league. It also ignores the beauty of a Dom Kinnear-led Houston squad, one that has shown time and again that they are a team built for the playoffs. Would the higher seeded teams want to play at home first if given the opportunity? No. The ability to go home knowing full well what you have to do to advance is priceless. If that advantage is good enough for the European Champions League, I humbly suggest that it should be good enough for us.

So for those bemoaning the fact that the #8 and #9 seeds are representing their conferences in the MLS Cup Final, direct your anger elsewhere. Any perceived slights in the playoff format are a symptom of your recent dismissal from contention, and not some unforeseen advantage. Your anger at the system, while misguided, is not completely off base. If you are mad that the 8th or 9th best team in the MLS will be hailed as the "best", then celebrate San Jose and all they achieved this year. Are there t-shirts being sold for the Supporter's Shield Champions? The fact that I need to ask means we place too little enfaces on our regular season records. That is unfortunate. Whether you are a Quakes fan or not, give credit where credit is due. They have their CCL berth, but at this juncture their legacy will be filled with "what if" instead of lauding the best record in the 2012 MLS Season. That needs to change.

If you think that the playoffs should give home-field advantage to the highest seed like the NFL, take a quick glance at the home records in MLS. 93-37-40 for Western Conference, and 74-42-36 for Eastern Conference. That is simply too big of an advantage. MLB and NBA give a lower seed 4 chances to get a lone win on the road. NFL makes the road much harder, but with an overall 145-111 home record over the course of the NFL season, the league is more balanced.

Finally, if you're upset that your team was eliminated from the tournament, and feel that playing at home second was a disadvantage - your anger is misplaced. Any disadvantage only came once you dug yourself a hole in the first leg. Matches in these playoffs are composed of four quarters. If you are playing away, and have the confidence to attack like you want to win, make sure you can do so. SKC and Seattle couldn't, and despite their Herculean effort in the second legs, they fell short. You cannot win in the MLS Playoffs if you play the same each match. It takes adaptability and an outlook of losing the battle, but winning the war, to survive.

Both Houston and LA have shown that by the boatload. They may not have the best record, but they are certainly deserving of their place in the Final. By yelling #8v9 from the rooftops, you aren't affecting changes in league ideals (placing value in regular season record), but instead serving only to rile up misguided controversy.

Celebrate this matchup, becuase these are two talented teams that have caught fire lately.

Celebrate the winner, because that team will be the MLS Cup Champion. And, based on the road they took, they will deserve it more than anyone else.