By Michael Lewis
Starting this weekend, we enter the stretch run for the MLS Cup Playoffs, as teams will play their remaining games through to Decision Day on Sunday, Nov. 8.
What to make of this season?
This is something I have been struggling with for some time now.
Here are some thoughts:
First of all, give Major League Soccer a lot of credit for putting together the MLS is Back tournament, which was played in an Orlando bubble, and for concocting a schedule that not only allowed the season to be completed, with a number of stumbling blocks (no back-and-forth travel between the United States and Canada). That was no easy equation and it certainly wasn’t a math problem we never had to solve in Algebra class.
Saying that, cramming so many games into a short period of time has not always been good for teams that could not deploy their full Starting XIs every match or had key players suffer injuries (see New York City FC) due to the overload of matches. Sides that have greater depth have been able to survive and even thrive (see Toronto FC).
As for crowning a champion, I will not dispute any team that dances around with the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy wherever the final will be held on Dec. 12. Last team standing in a surreal, upside down 2020 season, is an accomplishment in itself.
Heck, it will be a fabulous achievement for the two teams that will tussle in MLS Cup. Last teams standing, survival of the fittest or luckiest or best, however you want to define it.
But given what has transpired because of the COVID-19 pandemic, every teams’ season has been turned upside and inside out, with some squads essentially being forced to have three preseasons. The schedule has been cut severely, cramming games into a short period of time.
Regardless who wins the 2020 MLS Cup, this season needs as asterisk or two.
The playoffs have been expanded in the 14-team Eastern Conference, in which 10 instead of seven will compete in the postseason. I realize the circumstances but opening the playoff door for 71.1 percent of your teams will allow for some mediocre teams and some sub .500 clubs get a second life. Eight of the 12 Western Conference clubs will reach the playoffs.
I love a Cinderella story, but teams should be above water to reach the playoffs. Mediocrity should not be rewarded, even during a pandemic.
Due to the pandemic, the schedules have become much more regionalized. For example, outside of the Red Bulls playing Real Salt Lake back in March (seems like years ago, doesn’t it?), all of their games have been played against Eastern Conference foes, except for Nashville SC. NYCFC played a regional campaign, missing out on Atlanta United and Nashville.
The schedule was an unbalanced mess as NYCFC played Columbus Crew SC, Toronto FC and New England Revolution three times, but the Philadelphia Union and Montreal Impact only once. Again, I realize the difficult mathematics to get every team to the same amount of games was not an easy problem to solve.
But in a perfect world, I would have traded a third game vs. Columbus, Toronto or New England for a third Hudson River Derby confrontation.
Then there’s the plight of the Colorado Rapids, who have been forced to postpone six games due to COVID-19 and time is running out with 23 days remaining in the regular season. Trying to find room in the remaining weeks could be an impossible solution.
Is that fair to the other Western Conference clubs that are clawing their way to the postseason?
Is is fair to the Rapids, who have the fourth best points per game average in the conference (1.46) entering this weekend with a 5-4-4 record?
The league must have a Solomonesque decision, which either side probably will cry foul on.
On Friday, MLSSoccer.com’s Andrew Wiebe said that he thought any playoff team needed to play a minimum of 20 games to reach the postseason.
We got a Q today on @Extratime about PPG deciding playoff spots.
Strictly my opinion, I’m OK with it. Crazy year. I do think, however, that teams need to have played a minimum number of games to be considered for the postseason: 20 sounds right. pic.twitter.com/ACwBm4Qh3p
— Andrew Wiebe (@andrew_wiebe) October 16, 2020
Heck, I am old enough to remember when the San Jose Earthquakes went down to 7-1, 6-1 and 5-0 defeats during a 14-day stretch in September.
Since then, the Quakes have won four out of five games, outscoring their opposition, 11-5. Their latest victory was a 4-0 rout of the once-proud LA Galaxy. Yes, I realize beating the Galaxy these days isn’t considered a monumental task, but a 4-0 win is a 4-0 win.
Yeah, regardless what happens in December, the 2020 MLS season deserves an asterisk or two.