Thursday, September 15, 2011

Better to Finish Second?

After last Saturday when Sporting Kansas City beat Houston and Toronto defeated Columbus, Kansas City was tied for first place in the Eastern Conference. That ended last night when Columbus tied Houston and the Crew moved one point back in front of KC, dropping the Wizards into second place. With that drop to second, the argument of finishing first has really started to pick up.

Now the question is, why would a team want to finish in second place instead of first? Well the argument could be made that it's better for Sporting KC to finish second in the East. The way that MLS' playoffs are set up this year is that the top 3 teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs. The next 4 highest teams square off in a 1 game series with the 1 seed playing the 4 and the 2 playing the 3. Then the lowest seeded team remaining will play the Supporters' Shield winner, which is very likely going to go to the Western Conference, while the highest seed to win will play the Eastern Conference champion. Right now that match up would see RSL host DC while Colorado hosts Houston. Should both higher seeds win it would see Colorado play LA currently and RSL face the top team in the East.

The other conference semifinal match up sees the 2nd seed play the 3rd seed. Currently that would see the Wizards take on the Philadelphia Union. So right now who would you rather face, a team currently on 45 points, which is more than any team in the East currently has, or a team on 36 points?

Arguments can be made for either side. On the finish first side, you can argue that to be the best you need to beat the best, which is absolutely true. Even if KC were to finish second, there's still a possibility that KC would have to play RSL to get to MLS Cup anyway. The other good side of finishing first is that you're guaranteed to have home field for the conference finals should you advance. That's not guaranteed in the 2nd vs 3rd match up.

As for the finish second side of the argument, finishing second you get what would be perceived as an easier opponent in the semifinals. Then if you can defeat them you don't have to travel to play a team that possibly has more points than you do. Instead in the current scenario, if KC beats Philadelphia and RSL "upsets" Columbus, KC would play RSL at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park in a one game conference final. The draw back to this is that if Columbus beats RSL you find yourself traveling to Columbus for the conference final in a single game elimination.

I wouldn't think that a team would willingly throw games to get a worse playoff position, but it wouldn't be surprising either. And it might not be an Eastern team that would look on this as better to finish second. A team in the West could see it better to finish 4th than to finish 2nd or 3rd. You finish fourth in the West, you win your playoff game, you go to the "weaker" Eastern Conference for the playoffs as long as you win your playoff game. Definitely not the best playoff system conceived, but could certainly make for an interesting run up to the end of the season.


Drew said...

KC defeated RSL a month or so ago at Livestrong, so I think KC matches up well against RSL in attack. Philly really pounded on KC's defence in the match at PPL, and KC was a little fortunate the Union's finishing was so poor that day.
That said I think Philly is more of a wildcard than RSL. RSL is going to come out and attack and KC is going to attack, let's see who scores more. With the Union they may come out to stifle KC with defence, or they may try to go toe to toe with the attack. Either way, I know MLS Extratime podcast aways talks about trying to get positioning for the playoffs etc and so forth. Which is a terrible podcast with limited analysis. But you've just gone through a long season and now have the playoffs. If you're not confident of beating any of these teams then you shouldn't be in the game. You beat what's put in front of you.

Howie said...

The playoffs are random enough that I don't think relative strength of possible opponents matters that much. The Rapids, for example, won one of their last 5 regular season matches last year. It's more about a good streak in the playoffs than anything.

For all their recent struggles, Columbus is 8-2-5 at home and Philadelphia is 8-1-6. On the opposite side, the "risk" opponents of Salt Lake or Colorado are 4-5-3 and 5-6-4 at home.

Ryan said...

Either way you answer is playing with fire. What, lose a game here our there, maybe a draw just to finish in a position where we might play a team who's really not that much better than the other? The teams behind us are doing this as well right? those teams will stop wanting to win also bc they probably don't even want to make the play offs, ya?
With six games to go in a season and you have the ability to purposely finish in second while only being 4points ahead of third, this entire question becomes irrelevant, bc if you can do that is to say that you can win at will when ever and where ever you choose. So finishing first or second doesn't make a difference bc winning is only a matter of turning on a switch. Right?
Honestly, who thinks this way?
And are you really that afraid to play another mls team that you would actually jeapordize a chance of putting silverware in your clubs trophey casejust to avoid playing a team we beat with a man down by two goals?

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Mike said...

My question wasn't set up as a KC should TRY to finish in second, it was an argument of would it be better IF KC finished second instead of first.

Ryan you are right, it is playing with fire to TRY to finish second, but no coach is actually going to try to do that.

Howie, your stats are off, either you mean to put away instead of home or you have the wrong stats, RSL is 9-2-3 at home while Colorado is 5-2-7. You have their away records.

Nathan Martin said...

I briefly considered this line of thinking while looking at the playoff table earlier this week. There are far too many moving parts in this scenario to make a reasonable conclusion.

It may warrant a discussion, pending results, in the last couple games when the playoff positions have narrowed. Until then I simply hope that SKC remain solidly in the "Bye zone" and that DC United and/or NY don't catch fire.

Pete said...

A situation like this just drives home the point that a single table is the way to go. Unfortunately, it's quite clear we're going to need a new commissioner before that ever happens. MLS needs to stop trying to look like other US pro sports, and just embrace what works best for soccer.

Mike said...

There's not even going to be a balanced schedule after this season, a single table will NEVER happen no matter who the commissioner is.