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Two-Game Series a Proven Method

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There’s a better way to do it, but getting Major League Soccer to accept it is like trying to teach a mule to play Chopin.

Less than a month away from the end of its sixth season, MLS still is arguing over the best way to organize its playoffs and the debate shows no sign of diminishing.

Earlier this year, the league’s 12 coaches voted unanimously in favor of a best-of-two series, with ties broken first by aggregate goals and then, if the series still was tied, by having away goals--that is, those scored on the road--count double.

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That’s the way it’s done in Europe. But MLS isn’t Europe, not by a long shot, and the league’s competition committee rejected the coaches’ idea and said they would prefer staying with a best-of-three series, with the first team to earn five points advancing.

Teams get three points for a victory and one for a tie and the playoff teams are seeded so that those with better regular-season records are at home twice in the three-game series.

“We have to give some emphasis to regular-season results, and that was one of the reasons why giving a team an extra game with home-field advantage in a three-game series was thought to be important,” Ivan Gazidis, the league’s deputy commissioner, said Tuesday when once again faced with the question of how the MLS playoffs are set up.

Why not a two-game series? Why would a victory and a tie not be enough for a team to advance?

“The third games, if you look through MLS history, have been some of the most exciting and compelling games that the league has ever had,” Gazidis said.

“There is no format that is perfect, but what we wanted was something where the series would be decided on the field in front of the fans rather than by virtue of a one-sided result in a previous game.

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“While previous results do affect the three-game series as we have it structured, it’s not as much as they do in a two-game series. If you win the first leg, 5-0, that’s a very difficult lead to overcome, and the second game is a different kind of game altogether.”

But the league’s own figures tend to undermine its argument. Before Wednesday night’s three playoff games, the team that won the first game of a series ended up winning the series 93% of the time.

In 27 of 29 series, the team winning the opener won the series. In other words, it would not have made a difference if it were a two-game or a three-game series.

One argument in favor of a three-game series involves the additional revenue that can be obtained from a third game, and there’s nothing wrong with that, whether MLS admits it or not.

But the league’s argument that three-game series are necessary in order to give the regular season some meaning is troublesome. It is basically an admission that the regular season is meaningless, and in fact it is.

As things stand, there is very little edge to MLS regular-season games.

Win, lose or tie, it doesn’t really matter. Eight of 12 teams reach the playoffs, so it doesn’t take much more than a .500 record to reach postseason play.

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Of the eight teams currently involved in the playoffs, only three, the Miami Fusion, the Chicago Fire and the Galaxy, won more than half of their regular-season games and they finished 1-2-3, respectively, in the cumulative league standings.

Two solutions come to mind:

* Cut the number of teams that go to the playoffs from eight to four, based solely on points earned and regardless of division.

That would make regular-season games far more important.

* Better yet, do away with playoffs altogether.

Have a league champion based on points earned during the regular season and, after it’s over, allow all 12 teams to compete in an MLS Cup.

It’s not Chopin, but it gets the mule closer to the piano.

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