Wiebe: Higher seeds can’t use format as excuse for playoff failures

Home teams take control | MLS Review, Conference Semifinals Leg 1

Every October, like clockwork, the column inches, the Twitter advice and the comment-section op-eds pile up. “Here’s how to fix the MLS Cup Playoffs,” the tired refrain goes, as if the competition was irrevocably broken in the first place.

After all four lower seeds rolled to victories by a cumulative 7-0 margin on Sunday in the first leg of the Conference Semifinals, the playoff format and away goals rule went under the collective microscope yet again. Does the playoff setup do enough to reward regular-season success?

All this before the higher seeds actually get to fully enjoy the benefits they worked so hard to earn over 34 weeks from opening day through Decision Day. Namely, an extra week’s rest, protection from yellow-card accumulation and the privilege of hosting the series’ decisive game (and perhaps extra time).

Broken? I just don’t buy it. It’s a search for perfection when perfection isn’t attainable. The MLS Cup Playoffs may not please everyone, but the format isn't the culprit here.

What the regular season proves – and the playoffs reinforce year after year – is that there isn’t much separation between the MLS upper and middle classes. Regular-season success doesn’t grant the right to playoff glory. It’s simply a starting position. Yes, better seeding entitles you to clear advantages, but you’ve still got to earn the right to move on.

Was the format to blame for Bradley Wright-Phillips’ point-blank miss? For what was arguably Sacha Kljestan’s least effective game of the season? For the Rapids’ inability to generate enough chances to score a valuable away goal? For New York City FC’s lackadaisical late-game defending? For FC Dallas losing their shape and forgetting to track runners for eight minutes?

The playoff format gave all four higher seeds an immensely valuable opportunity to score an away goal that would have drastically changed the complexion of each series and set the tone for the second leg. They didn’t score any. That’s not the format’s fault, that’s the fault of misfiring strikers and too-tentative coaches.

Maybe instead of blaming the format, we should take a closer look at those performances and decisions. Maybe we should give credit where credit is due, to teams who went out and won on two- and three-days rest. Maybe teams should be held accountable for the present instead of being given the benefit of the doubt for past accomplishments.

Why is it so appalling – in a league that prides itself on parity, in which just two of 20 teams hit the .500 mark away from home and just 18 points separated the Supporters’ Shield winner and final playoff qualifier – for home teams to carry the day? Isn’t that what was supposed to happen? And shouldn’t it be a harbinger of things to come for the Red Bulls, New York City FC, Rapids and FC Dallas?

Before we jump to conclusions and start fixing things that don’t need fixing, let’s let this thing play out. There’s a reason just about any MLS coach, player or executive, if put on the spot, would prefer to host the second leg. It’s a huge advantage, albeit one that rests on a performance that reflects regular-season excellence in the first leg.

The Red Bulls and Rapids – 13-2-2 and 11-0-6 on home turf and down just one goal on aggregate – are in prime position to move on to the Conference Championships, where their regular-season records suggest they should be. Provided they perform to the standard they set from March to mid-October, the system is working just fine for both despite a Leg 1 loss.                                                                                                                   

Meanwhile, NYCFC eschewed the formula that made them the best road team in MLS this year and went defensive. They paid for it, rightfully so, and must turn in a near flawless performance at Yankee Stadium. Surely that's not too much to ask of the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Same for Shield-winners FC Dallas, who can’t blame Mauro Diaz’s untimely injury for shutting off defensively and letting the treble, in all likelihood, slip away.

I keep hearing the top seeds deserve more from their regular-season performances, that the format which already gives them clear advantages is to blame if they fail to advance. To me, that sounds like, at best, an excuse and, at worse, entitlement.

Want to make history in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs? Do the same thing you did in the regular season. Go out there and earn it.  

A caveat…

While I don’t have any real beef with the current format, there’s one tweak I’m willing to acknowledge would properly reward and encourage regular-season excellence as well as discourage overly defensive play in the playoffs.

In the event of an aggregate tie, when away goals don’t provide a tiebreaker, I think the higher seed should go through to the next round instead of resorting to extra-time and penalties to decide a winner.

I'll readily admit the idea is borrowed from the system Liga MX uses in their Liguilla. It discourages lower seeds from bunkering as they need either away goals or an outright aggregate  win to move on, while higher seeds get their just reward for months of consistency.

In Mexico, the result is entertaining, high-stakes ties. In the 2015-16 Apertura and Clausura Liguilla quarterfinals and semifinals – the two-legged final doesn’t abide by away goals and goes to extra-time if the score is tied after 180 minutes, an issue MLS Cup’s single-game format avoids – there were 64 goals scored in 24 games, an average of 2.66 per game. That’s slightly more than the average during the 2014 and 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Semifinals and Championships (2.54), in which away goals were used for the first time.

It would be a small but significant tweak that would put the onus on clubs to perform in the regular season in order to avoid disappointment come playoff time.