Real Salt Lake had the third-best record in Major League Soccer this season, but its reward is a playoff-opening series against second-ranked Sounders FC, starting Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Asked about a 2-vs.-3 matchup in a league where 10 clubs make the postseason, RSL coach Jason Kreis said he thinks it is unfair to both clubs.
“I don’t agree with the system,” he said. “But I also accept what it is, and recognize that I don’t get to make those decisions. So, we’ll deal with it the best way that we know how.”
On similar questions, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid takes a similar stance of not worrying about things he can’t control.
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However, Kreis went on to say what Schmid wouldn’t: that these playoff pairings may be even more unfair to the Sounders than to Salt Lake.
“I think you have to feel particularly aggrieved for Seattle,” he said, “because after the season that they’ve put together to have to turn around and play us rather than what should be a wild-card team is, I think, a particularly poor place for them to be.”
Seattle ended the regular season with 63 points, second among the league’s 18 teams. RSL finished third with 53 points.
However, despite MLS playing a balanced schedule in which all clubs play the 17 others home and away, the league’s top six playoff seeds are divided evenly by conference, while the four wild-card teams are the next four teams regardless of conference.
Those wild-card teams are meeting this week in loser-out matches. The lowest-seeded wild-card winner will go on to play the higher-seeded conference champion, while the highest-seeded wild-card survivor will play the lower-seeded conference champion.
That means the Supporters’ Shield-winning Los Angeles Galaxy is rewarded for its regular-season success by playing the weakest remaining club.
Meanwhile, Seattle plays RSL, rather than any of the five remaining lower-seeded teams.
The other wild-card survivor plays Eastern champion Kansas City, which finished 12 points behind the Sounders, two points behind RSL, and a point behind even Western fourth-place finisher FC Dallas.
That playoff structure combines with this season’s results to make it certain that at least one of the top three regular-season finishers won’t survive among the league’s final four playoff teams. And it makes it impossible for the top two teams to meet in the MLS Cup final.
“The playoffs are the way they are,” Schmid said last week. “We can argue about: Is it structured the right way, should it be seeded all the way 1 through 10? But at the end of the day these are the rules that I’m faced with as a coach, so this is what we’ve got to be prepared to do.
“Even though the top three teams are going to play off against each other and knock each other out, that’s just the way it is, and we’ve got to live with it.”
Any changes in the playoff format would have to come from the league’s competition committee.
However, Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said a solution could become even more difficult next season, when the addition of Montreal brings MLS to 19 clubs and the league is expected to shift to an unbalanced schedule.
“(That) starts to muddy the waters even more as to who the best eight to 10 teams are at the end of the league season – because if you’re not all playing the same teams home and away, it eliminates the purity of who the best 10 teams are,” Hanauer said.
“ No matter what we end up with, it will be flawed in some way in terms of the purity of the best teams placing in the right order. But there is a competition committee meeting coming up real soon. That will be, I’m sure, on the agenda.”