By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 27, 2012) US Soccer Players – We're about to draw the line on success and failure in Major League Soccer. Who is in or out in the playoffs is normally the only critical distinction for coaches in this League. Make the playoffs, and all is forgiven. Fail, and it's time to make the strongest case possible that this is all part of a process.
There are, of course, other ways to look at things. The number one factor for coaches losing their jobs in single table leagues without playoffs is the losing streak. Drop enough points, and few clubs are patient enough to resist the dreaded vote of confidence that normally precedes another loss, a press conference, and a new coach. That's not normally the way MLS operates. If you look at the game-by-game results for most of the League's clubs, a losing streak is almost expected. Along with winning or losing a game by four goals at some point during the season, it's almost a hallmark.
MLS takes it for granted that the handful of coaches that have lost their jobs after making the playoffs is few. Finishing in the equivalent of mid-table in a European league is proof that the coach is doing his job. Fair enough to some extent, even if accomplished without finishing over .500.
This is a league with a lot of space between models that have shown they don't work (thanks Toronto) and ones that most clubs believe cost too much (New York and Los Angeles) or simply aren't replicable (Seattle). In between are the clubs that stay on a reasonable budget, rewarded with playoff runs and not a whole lot of distinction between their record and the two big spenders. We're still in a transitional period where there's not enough evidence that building a squad around marquee players is the only way to win consistently, and that's good news for a lot of MLS teams.
Even for the clubs that consider themselves the class of the League, the playoffs are the marker. Most of the time, that simple 'us and them' distinction cancels out disappointing early exits. So what to make of this safety net in the year of the Conference-specific Play-In Round?
Major League Soccer's latest tweak to the playoff format means the fourth and fifth place finishers in each conference play a single game to see who advances to the home-and-away semifinal series. Introduced last season, the original version was cross-Conference. With the Eastern teams at a sizeable disadvantage (Sporting KC won the East with the 5th-best record in the League), the play-in round put an Eastern Conference team in the Western bracket and a Western Conference team in the East. Both exited in the semifinal round.
Conference-specificity is an important distinction even in a season where the East is competitive for the first time in years. Primarily, it introduces a greater distinction between the playoffs, and the playoffs proper. Is failing to advance from the play-in game the same as dropping an opening round series in previous years? Is it still enough for a coach to avoid the kind of end of season review that ends with an MLS team notifying the media that they'll be making a very important announcement concerning the future of their organization?
As much as it's up to the teams involved this season, their choices will undoubtedly set a trend. Last year, the play-in was the exit point for New York and Columbus, both established teams that had disappointed in the regular season. Both continued with business as usual moving into 2013.
Should the current playoff system hold, coaches keeping their jobs just by making the Conference play-in game would suggest other coaches should expect the same. Using recent history as an indicator, we'll probably see a club eventually use the play-in as a launching pad to ruin a better team's season. Then what? Is it the old idea that the playoffs are enough, or do teams start holding coaches to a higher standard?
Our historical exceptions don't tell us very much. Playoff coaches move on due to contract disputes or exit due to unrealistic expectations on the part of their teams. Both of these categories are short on examples, a statement to how safe MLS coaches are simply by making the playoffs. As things have stood for most of MLS history, fair enough. Yet pairing strictly by conference playoffs with the play-in round at least suggests we've reached the point where it might no longer be a safety net.
The team that advances can congratulate themselves on a successful season, but the team that gets an extra game should be asking serious questions about what they've really accomplished. That's not what any coach wants to hear. It's an easier world when qualifying for the postseason is enough.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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