Major League Soccer’s 19-team league season ends in a one-month, winner-takes-all playoff competition designed to generate a crazy amount of fun in a short period of time, but not necessarily to hand the cup to the team that, by any European standard, is truly the best in the land. In 2010, the un-fancied Colorado Rapids rose from sixth seed to beat FC Dallas, the most successful regular-season team, in the MLS Cup final. Real Salt Lake had done something similar the year before, and, even further back, teams like the New England Revolution had prided themselves on season-defying mid-October bursts that, almost inevitably, ended in cup-final appearances
These stories don’t illustrate the beauty of underdog successes. Contrary to popular belief, underdog successes are never “good for the game,” unless you think that stripmining the game’s biggest stars from the game’s biggest showcase is positive and exciting and worth dancing in front of the TV about. Rather, these stories reveal the inherent randomness of the MLS playoffs: Since the competition admits nine of its 19 teams into the post-season, there’s always a chance that one of the lesser lights will put together a run and knock out a more established force.
The 2012 MLS Cup final is still about a week and a half away, but one team we know won’t be playing in it is the San Jose Earthquakes, whose league-topping regular-season performances counted for nothing in the Western Conference semi-finals. But arguably the most shocking casualty of this year’s playoffs is the New York Red Bulls – not shocking in the sense that no one expected New York to be eliminated, but shocking in the holy-shit-they-really-screwed-up sense, where you’ve got your jaw hanging open even before the final whistle sounds, and then two days and a lot of internal therapy later your jaw’s still hanging open (and, at this point, people are starting to stare) because it was just that mesmerizingly gruesome.