The Clean Sheet: 'Tis the season

It's been a nice run PR-wise for MLS as of late, hasn't it? The Salt Lake City announcement created some much-warranted buzz, as will the Chivas announcement if and when it officially gets done here on Planet LA. In addition to expansion, MLS notably kept another young U.S. talent at home in Danny Szetela, and the league has set up a star-studded legends game as part of the All-Star festivities at The House That Dennis Ludwig Built.

So with all of the good news, last week we took the time to look at the big picture and all the positives that are confirmed by the influx of new investors.

With recent events moving in such a positive direction, this week I want to suggest a way to maintain the momentum of growth of the Major League Soccer product, on the field and off.

Beginning next season, only two teams in each conference should qualify for the playoffs.

I will start by saying there is no chance this is going to happen - I mean the Kansas City Wizards will actually get some recognition as the best team in MLS before a move like this is made. Nevertheless, I am going to tell you why I think it should.

The bottom line (and this is not the first time this has been written): too many teams appear to be playing too many games without displaying a sense of urgency to win. This league is exploding with talented players, and sometimes it doesn't feel like they are being given the impetus to shine. I feel like the playoff system may be a reason why.

Take a look at my Dallas Burn. With 20 points from 16 games, they are tied for the last playoff spot in the West. There is no hurry to right the ship, because they are comfortably in the hunt and have plenty of time to sort things out. Thus, getting handled at home, as they did last weekend, doesn't cause too much worry.

Now, what if only the top two teams made the playoffs? Suddenly, the Burn are 11 points out of the playoffs, and business better pick up quick, or their season is done. I have to believe I would see a Dallas team playing with a lot more desire and urgency, maybe shuffling the deck a bit, all of which one could make for a better product for the Burn faithful.

But there are no alarms sounding in Dallas, nor in Columbus, where I am not the first to write that at times last weekend, I saw no sense of a team gunning for three points at home over a last-place team, never mind a division rival. Dallas and Columbus are only mentioned here because of events last weekend, but there are plenty of other clubs that, especially in this season of parity, just want to do enough to stay in the mix. There have been too many teams coming out in too conservative a manner, even (and especially) in front of their home crowds.

Want proof? Look at what happens when a team plays hungry - personified by how San Jose came out last weekend. They played some beautiful, flowing football and seemed out for the jugular the whole match. This was a team that needed a win and played like it.

It made for a great product on TV, and I'm sure anyone at Spartan Stadium for the first time that day will be back for another helping. There is no way every game can be like this, but it should be more often than not. There is plenty of talent in MLS, sometimes I just feel like the horses need to be let loose for the league to put its best foot forward.

So cut the playoffs to two teams from each conference. In the spirit of Waldo's win bonus idea, I'd allocate a nice playoff bonus to each playoff team, as that will make the drive for the playoffs even more valuable to the players. A one-game conference championship at the home of the top-seeded club will ensure that first place means more than second.

Yes, there are downsides to this idea. First, with expansion next season, it will be four of six teams qualifying instead of four of five, perhaps more if expansion moves ahead in 2006. I still say that is too many.

Second, what happens to a team that is all but eliminated in August? How does that club sell their remaining six or seven games to their fans? My honest response is that I am more concerned with the product over all 30 games, and that if your team is eliminated that early, the impetus is on the club to make sure that does not happen again next season.

Right now this league is loaded with talented and exciting players, from the polarizing, uh, "flamboyance" of Carlos Ruiz to the enterprising Clint Dempsey, who may not stop at Rookie of the Year on his way to a possible Best XI. Almost every year another new, atmosphere-inducing venue is providing the backdrop for the way the game is meant to be presented. And new money is flowing in, expanding the league's footprint and signaling a new era of growth for the game in The States.

With all of that, let's ensure that in as many games as possible, the MLS product on the field is always up to the standards which are being set with all of this positive momentum.

Gimme a 30-game dogfight for just two playoff spots per conference and I'll give you a team that has to produce victories. And with that, the product - and therefore the fans - will come out the true winners.

FOR RECREATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY:

I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy ... so every week TCS is gonna put a little action on the action, if you know what I'm talkin' about. Each week in this space we'll track how last week went and what's on the books, so to speak, for the upcoming week.

LAST WEEK: One up and one down with the Quakes spanking Mile High Club to bring in 50, but the Fire giving it right back thanks to a pretty dodgy call.
CURRENT BANK: 0
THIS WEEK: I like the Wizards over the Galaxy for 50, and let's go with San Jose over New Eng-er-land for another 50.

MLSnet.com COLUMNIST LOCKS OF THE WEEK: OK, you guys asked for it, so now you're getting it - every week the MLSnet.com columnists are going to pick one lock of the week and we'll keep a running tally to see who actually knows what they are talking about. Late word is that The Commish was nice enough to offer an all-expenses paid weekend in Salt Lake City to the winner.

LAST WEEK: Countdown boy has the only W of the weekend with the Crew-Revs draw to pull into a tie for second. It dawns on me that if Hard C just took the Revs every weekend, he'd have the same number of wins.

STANDINGS:

Lalas 8-7

Bradley 6-9

Palace 6-9

Connolly 4-11

THIS WEEK:

Bradley: L.A.-K.C. draw

Hard C: SJ over NE

Tino: D.C.-Dallas draw

Lalas: San Jose over New England

GRAB A COLD BUD (OR AQUAFINA) AND PUT YER FEET UP:
WHAT I'LL BE WATCHING:

Saturday - CREW AT RAPIDS (4 pm ET on The Deuce): What do you say right after you get knocked out of the U.S. Open (or any other) Cup? All together now: "Good. Now we can just concentrate on the league."

Saturday - GALAXY AT WIZARDS (8:30 pm ET on Fox Sports World): Probably the marquee matchup of the season so far, let's find out who is the big dog in The West.

FLICK-ONS:

Seen the reports that Jurgen Klinsmann is talking to the German federation regarding some sort of role? It has not been made clear whether it may involve the vacant head coaching gig after Rudi Voeller ran the country's team into the ground. Or maybe it wasn't Voeller's fault, but was just the soccer gods punishing them for the handball against the U.S. in the last World Cup.

I'm not saying Chelsea is seemingly buying everyone in sight again, but my spies tell me that Pat Riley had to talk Shaq out of choosing Stamford Bridge over the Heat.

So Mexico goes to Copa America to represent for CONCACAF in a glamour quarterfinal with Brazil and ... gets annihilated. Sheesh ... do we really have to do everything ourselves these days?

The Clean Sheet runs each Thursday on MLSnet. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com. Send any questions and comments to tcsresponses@yahoo.com


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