MLS playoffs likely to suffer due to unnecessary break

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The Major League Soccer team Sporting Kansas City are just 90 minutes away from punching their ticket into the 2013 MLS Cup. This would be Kansas City’s first professional championship game since the Kansas City Wizards in 2000. In sports other than soccer, Kansas City has not tasted a championship since 1985 when the Kansas City Royals won the Major League Baseball crown.

The anticipation is high around Kansas City for the team – Sporting Kansas City has sold out 34 straight Major League Soccer matches at beautiful Sporting Park and are in the midst of their third consecutive playoff run, this time buying to host the Dec. 7 championship match against either Real Salt Lake or the Portland Timbers.

However, fans of Sporting Kansas City and the other three remaining playoff teams have to wait two weeks following last weekend’s first leg of the Conference Finals and leg two, currently set for Nov. 23 and 24. This break has put a halt to what has proved to be an enthralling playoffs so far, and may perhaps drown out the enthusiasm that influences vital TV ratings.

Now, to be fair, the two-week break isn’t a regular deal for Major League Soccer. The decision was made prior to the start of this year’s playoffs due to worldwide FIFA World Cup Qualifying, including two United State Men’s National Team friendlies on Nov. 15 and 19. The idea was to create a break during national duty so that the playoffs would not have to forfeit superstars like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Graham Zusi.

The issue, though, is with that anticipation. The United States Men’s National Team have already qualified for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, making these two upcoming friendlies practically meaningless.

It was previously believed that U.S. coach
Jurgen Klinsmann would leave those remaining playoff Major League Soccer players off his camp call up for friendly preparation, and Monday this proved to be true. For Sporting Kansas City, defender Matt Besler and midfielder Graham Zusi were left off the list. The case was the same for the remaining playoff teams with U.S. players, including Real Salt Lake and the Houston Dynamo.

So, minus a handful of Major League Soccer players who will be joining their respected national teams, this break is basically an awkward stall in the middle of the most intriguing part of the Major League Soccer season, and it’s a shame on two significant levels.

At club level, the break is polarizing. A team like the Houston Dynamo are welcoming the break because it allows them to rest and heal up after playing five matches in two weeks. However, this ultimately hurts the higher seeds like Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers that earned their spot in the playoffs and now have to sit back and allow their opponents to get recuperated heading into the second leg of the conference finals.

Major League Soccer has always been criticized for its lack of benefits for finishing near the top of the regular-season conference standings, and this situation only highlights the issue. The playoffs, no matter what sport, are about playing with what you got and gelling as a squad at the right time. A staggering break like this one eliminates these ideas and puts everyone back at a mostly level playing field, undeservedly.

More disappointing is the harm this break brings to hype and exposure through social media and TV ratings, both of importance to Major League Soccer. What the National Football League does so well is scheduling playoffs games that are staggered — not too far apart that they’re forgotten and not too close that they lose their welcome.

Prior to the break, Major League Soccer’s playoffs were operating at a happy medium and were receiving significant TV exposure on ESPN and NBC Sports. The hiatus, if you will, drowns out the early playoff momentum and excitement, and quite possibly eliminates an audience of people that aren’t avid Major League Soccer fans, but were interested in the playoff action.

Major League Soccer has enjoyed its share of success this year with average attendance now over 18,000 and teams like Sporting Kansas City selling out every regular-season match. And while this year’s playoffs may very well be one of the more impressive in terms of the on-field play and excitement at the various stadiums, this two-week break ultimately puts an unnecessary cloud over the league during an important time of its history.

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