The Throw-In: Finally, MLS has an elite eight

Finally, the cream has risen to the top. Take a look up and down the MLS Cup Playoffs field, and it’s a pretty inarguable fact: The eight most deserving teams are in the postseason.

Is that really so remarkable? The answer is a resounding yes. Say what you will about MLS’ playoff format, which has been altered more times in the past 15 years than your dad’s wedding tux. For the first time in league history, every single team in the playoff field is a winning side.

I’ll repeat that so it sinks in: Never before have all eight playoffs teams had better than .500 records.

Let’s be frank: As the league has fluctuated with the number of franchises, expansion, contraction and then expansion again, it’s been a tough sell to convince fans that the eight teams that end up vying for the title are all worthy contenders. Going strictly by the numbers, there is always a dog or two that makes it into that final field. During MLS’ first two seasons, in fact, all but two teams made the playoffs (and again from 2002 to '04).

[inline_node:322043]But this season has afforded MLS a watershed moment in its growth. With the addition of Philadelphia bringing the league’s count to 16 clubs, we’ll never again see more teams making it into the playoffs than those who don’t.

That’s not something to take lightly. Dig a little deeper, and there’s proof positive that MLS is evolving into a more mature league with higher-quality soccer, and one that is becoming a bigger player on the world stage.

I did a little bit of number-crunching just to see how well this year’s field of eight playoff teams rates historically. I went back through every season in MLS history and averaged out totals for the eight teams that made the MLS Cup Playoffs dating back to 1996.

Here are some of the conclusions:

1. We’ve gotten the point. The average points total of this year’s final eight is 50.8, the second-highest in league history. And all eight teams didn’t just finish with winning records – they all had at least three more wins than losses.

That means this is the first time in MLS history that no team has back-doored its way into the postseason just to make up the numbers.

The flip side, of course, is that we’ll likely never see miracle runs to the MLS Cup final by party-crashing bottom-feeders, such as the 2005 LA Galaxy, the ‘08 New York Red Bulls or even last year’s Real Salt Lake. But that also means that regular-season quality will always be rewarded.

Why was this year’s average total only the second-highest, you ask? The best-ever average points total was in 2005, at 51.4. And that’s nothing to get excited about. For one, it was a 32-game schedule that year, with an additional six points on the board.

But that season was also the inaugural campaigns for both RSL and Chivas USA, the worst-ever expansion teams. They were so bad, they made everyone else look good: Their combined 132 goals allowed was nearly as much as the rest of the Western Conference gave up in total.

2. Defense wins championships. It’s true in every sport. But this year’s batch of playoff teams allowed an average 29.6 goals over the course of the regular season, tying last season for the all-time low. That’s less than a goal allowed per game – something else that’s never happened in league history.

[inline_node:316397]That means the early, Wild West gun-slinging days of MLS are a thing of the past. We rarely see goal-fests anymore, and we certainly don’t see seasons like 1998, when both D.C. United and the LA Galaxy – the two most prolific offenses in league history – were scoring in the neighborhood of 2.5 goals per game.

That’s because coaches in today’s MLS have put a greater emphasis on effective, organized defense. It’s not a surprise when you hear newcomers to the league remark how physical and tough it can be.

3. Quality over quantity. Again, another league first: All eight playoff teams had a positive goal differential. Sounds amazing, but it’s true – every team scored more goals than they allowed.

Historically, it’s not even close. The average plus-11.1 differential of this year’s octet marks the first time the average has cracked the plus-10 mark. Consider, by comparison, that average figure has been less than plus-three during four separate seasons.

And as recently as two years ago, half the playoff field entered the postseason with a minus differential. Put it another way: Half of playoff teams were allowing more goals than they were scoring, yet had the same chance to win MLS Cup as the team that won the Supporters’ Shield.

What makes this year even more remarkable is that scoring was at an all-time low in MLS this season at 2.46 goals per game. That’s a far cry from the record 3.57 per game from the 1998 season. But it’s a reflection of the quality of the league and the maturation of both offenses and defenses.

In fact, that 2.46 average from 2010 puts MLS more in line with the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A instead of the comically high stratosphere of the old days.

In all, this makes this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs perhaps the easiest to sell to fans. Whoever hoists that trophy in Toronto next month, no one can accuse them of not deserving to be there.

From the Shield-winning LA Galaxy all the way down to the San Jose Earthquakes, this year’s field features eight teams that all play really good soccer. That’s honestly the first time we’ve ever been able to say that.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.

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