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Coffee with the Caps, Monday October 21

Who needs drugs when you have the MLS playoffs

MLS: Playoffs-Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Good Monday morning Caps’ fans. I’m hoping you all had the chance to catch what were a riveting series of matches this weekend during the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, even though it was impossible not to rue the absence of Vancouver.

The weekend of playoff matches was a pretty compelling argument in support of the league’s decision to move away from two-legged legs in the playoff in favor of a single-elimination, do-or-die match hosted by the higher seed. Many initially were worried the plan would result in lower-seeded teams parking the bus, electing to play out a 0-0 draw and hope the penalties magic eight ball shakes out their way.

But that isn’t what we saw this weekend. Three of the matches went to extra time, although none went to penalties. The other three games were decided in regular time by a single goal and the energy in all six was palpable. Almost from the opening kick, the mood was frantic. Both FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union erased two-goal deficits, although only the Union would up finding the go-ahead goal they needed to advance.

The other major concern about the plan was that it would not necessarily reward the better team, as a two-legged affair generally does. But in the first round the higher seeds won in all but one match and that was a 4/5 matchup. While this is still certainly a concern long term, MLS already rewards regular season success with the Supporters’ Shield. The playoffs need to be the kind of event to capture a neutral’s attention and the thrill of single-elimination is something easily understood by a baseball or football fan. It is, largely, what makes March Madness the single most consuming event in American sports—the idea that anything can happen with the urgency of a winner-take all clash.

While the quality is obviously not of the level of Europe’s top leagues, the playoffs this weekend were the most compelling soccer on TV in a weekend that included one of the most high-profile derbies in the world soccer (Manchester United versus Liverpool). Anyone new to MLS who turned in likely would be captivated by the emotion of the matches—if they could find them on their TV, with one match confined to ESPNNews and another to Univision Deportes here in the U.S. Ensuring their games are at least on the channels regularly available to consumers on cable should be a key part of the next TV deal because the MLS playoffs are finally a product that appears capable of capturing the casual fan.

Yeah, I’m sure purists will still groan about the format—which is totally understandable. Anyone used to European soccer would likely be aghast by what MLS Cup is. Or, perhaps not. After all, one of the most compelling and storied competitions in Europe, which largely relies on the same format as the playoff system we use in the States (setting aside the concept of replays for a second). Liga MX uses a playoff system, as does Australia’s A League. Many leagues in Western and Central Europe use a variation of the playoff format, splitting the table into two seperate mini competitions in the second half of the season.

At the end of the day, MLS needs to speak the lanaguage of the American sports fan as often as possible. This doesn’t mean that they should capitulate totally (I don’t think anyone believes we should bring back some of the silly gimmicks of the early MLS days) and promotion/relegation should still be MLS’ long term goal. But the playoffs are an easy cultural touchpoint easily understood by any North American with even a remote interest in sport. If any of them were watching this weekend, I’d guess they’d be ready for more MLS—at a time when the sport sorely needs that interest.

Onto the links!

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