The Forgotten Playoffs: MLS

We are in the playoff push for the NFL season. The NBA season tipped off and NHL season is well underway. One of the most watched World Series ever wrapped up with the Chicago Cubs breaking a 108-year curse, the longest drought in American sports history.

sebastian-giovinco
Sebastian Giovinco could deliver Toronto a league title for a franchise that had never won a playoff game before this year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in all of that, the MLS playoffs kicked off. Now, the MLS is not quite on par with the core four of American sports, but the last few years have pushed the top American soccer league into the national focus. The last several years have been solid years of growth in terms of league money and fans.

If anything, this year had the makings of a big year for the MLS playoffs. It features several big market teams, think New York, LA, Seattle, Dallas and D.C., a team searching for its first ever playoff win in Toronto, all three MVP candidates between the two New York squads and the return of the most-accomplished MLS player ever in Landon Donovan.

Yet all of that very easily fell by the wayside when the rest of the sports world exploded. Factor in the most ridiculous presidential election possibly ever and the MLS playoffs have been largely forgotten.

Now it is easy to write this off as just Americans don’t care about soccer, but that isn’t really a fair assumption. MLSSoccer.com reported in July that viewership was up across all ESPN platforms, specifically 32 percent on television and 127 percent via the WatchESPN app.

More fans are showing up to the stadiums as well. Total gate numbers increased by about more than 100 fans per game across the league. That might not sound like much, but that’s an extra 34,000 tickets sold this year. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, roughly 7.38 million fans turned out for MLS games this year.

Jordan Morris, Jeff Hendrick
Jordan Morris (left) scored the decisive goal in the Western Conference Final for Seattle. (Wikimedia Commons)

The stage is set for a massive final tonight, between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It is the first time that either team has even reached the MLS Final, so we are guaranteed to have a new champion this year.

The stage is set for an impressive final, yet it is unlikely that people will be watching. At least not in the United States. Canadian television ratings were smashed consistently during the Eastern Conference playoffs. Toronto matched up with Montreal for the first all-Canadian conference final ever.

As I mentioned before, the league holds its playoffs at a time that competes with the NFL, college football, college basketball, the NBA, NHL and the World Series. It is to imagine that soccer is going to break through all of that to make an impression or garner fans’ attention.

Once again, the league needs to start considering a shift in the season. If the MLS Final were to happen some time in September or June, there is a very good chance that it would merit more coverage. There would also be a lot less to compete with. Obviously, the league does not want to admit that soccer is not popular enough to stand out in the States, but that’s the reality right now.

Soccer is slowly growing the U.S., but the long-term success of MLS will rely on a breakthrough in television viewership.

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MLS playoff hopefuls after the first fortnight of the season

I will admit it. I was completely wrong about the start to the MLS season. I truly believed that MLS and its players would be unable to find a level ground for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Turns out, the two sides were able to come up with a new agreement, which meant that the season would start on schedule. Good thing they did too because the last two weeks have been truly exciting. The parity in the MLS is incredible as well, with only one team having won each of its first games. With two weeks down, it’s time to take a look at who the playoff teams at the end of this year will be.

Eastern Conference:

Number 6: New York Red Bulls
The Red Bulls were a goal away from pushing into the MLS Final. However, without Tierry Henry, it is unlikely New York will be as high up in the standings. With two different Designated Player positions yet to be filled, the Red Bulls will be candidates to land a game changing player to make a big push for the playoffs. It worked for New England last year with Jermaine Jones.

Number 5: New York City FC
Another New York team clocks in at five. NYCFC actually sits atop the Eastern Conference at the moment, but that likely won’t last. David Villa proved last week that he can be a force and Ned Grabavoy looked strong in the midfield. Bringing in Frank Lampard midway through the season will provide a nice boost NYC will need to stay afloat for the postseason hunt.

Number 4: New England Revolution
The defending Eastern Conference champions look a bit rattled right now. Through two games, they have failed to register a point, outscored five goals to nil. However, the losses came against Seattle and NYC, both of whom will be in the postseason. New England needs to make some changes, but with time to right the ship, they should be fine.

Number 3: Orlando City SC
Sitting just behind New York City currently is the other fresh face to the MLS. With four point in their first two matches and a group of talented, promising players, Orlando has the assets needed to finish in the top three in the East. Ricardo Kaká is their leader and when he plays well, this is a tough club to beat. Defense will carry this club as far as they go.

Number 2: DC United
DC will once again find themselves near the top of the East. Bill Hamid is tough to beat in between the posts and more often than not, DC can find the offense needed to get a win. United allowed the fewest goals last tied with LA. Once again, DC will find a way to win low scoring games on their way to a top playoff seed.

Number 1: Columbus Crew
With Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain and Ethan Findlay running the show in Ohio, the Crew will be a tough outfit to beat. Those three have Columbus in a good spot already to begin the season sitting third after just two matches. If the Crew’s defensive performance steps up even marginally this year compared to last, this team will finish atop the Eastern Conference.

Western Conference:

Number 6: Houston Dynamo
Landing Cubo Torres in the offseason was a great move for the Dynamo. For a team that struggled to score and really got beat badly on a regular basis, getting a top goal scorer was a top priority. Their victory over Columbus shows that this team is ready to turn the corner and become a threat in the postseason.

Number 5: Sporting KC
Despite sitting last right now in the West, I think Kansas City will find a way into the postseason. It will be close but with Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi and Dom Dwyer running the show, this team has enough talent to reach the playoffs. Predicated on defense, this will be a tough team to out over the course of the season. Their loss this year came at Dallas, which is more than acceptable given how good Dallas is.

Number 4: Real Salt Lake
Salt Lake returns to the playoffs in 2015. Here is yet another team that wins with its defense, allowing the third fewest goals in MLS just a season ago. Kyle Beckerman anchor this group and with Nick Rimando in between the posts, this team is tough to score on. If the collection of strikers for RSL can muster up some more goals this year, they could finish even higher.

Number 3: FC Dallas
Currently sitting as the king of the hill in the West and this no fluke. The two wins come against San Jose and Sporting KC, which gives them some credibility. Dallas won’t remain on top come seasons end with the two powers who control the West playing as well as they do but they will be a title contender come the fall.

Number 2: Los Angeles Galaxy
This is where LA finished its 2014 campaign and then went on to win the MLS Cup. I think they won’t mind a repeat. With Landon Donovan gone and Steven Gerrard not set to join the club until almost July, look for the Galaxy to slip a little bit from their 2014 form. This team though still outscored opponents by 32 goals last season. I don’t think they will be that dominate this year but they will make another playoff appearance as a top seed.

Number 1: Seattle Sounders FC
Once again, Seattle will finish on top in the West. After winning the Supporters Shield last year and qualifying for the playoffs every year in its existence, Seattle desperately wants a title. Making the postseason is no longer enough. The Sounders will certainly get their once again, but it remains to be seen if they can actually make the jump into the MLS Final, something this squad has still yet to do.