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.