How to fix the MLS Playoffs

As an avid  American soccer fan I am tied to the fate of the pro league here, Major League soccer. For better or worse, I will be a fan regardless of what stupid policies the league institutes.  The current playoff system is one of the stupider policies I’ve seen. Wedded to a nonsensical conference system, the playoffs have matched eight nearly inseparable teams in a confusing and unfair way.  The last two years a conference champion has been a team from the opposite conference. It doesn’t have to be this way.

First off lets take off the table what won’t happen. MLS will never have  a single table, even if they use one to denote playoff standing. This is America, we have conferences. If you don’t like it I hear the quality of soccer in Europe is pretty awesome. With that in mind here is a minimally different system which I think is more fair and workable.

Keep the conferences. Regular season winner of the conference is the conference champion. Enjoy the t-shirt. 18 teams in league next year and more on the way make 8 teams qualifying for playoffs fair. This number should not be increased. This is soccer, playoffs can be anticlimactic.  It should get harder to qualify not easier. Conference champions get top two seeds in playoffs. Yes I know RSL was better than NYRB this year but I feel we should throw the conference champion a perk. Remember we are in America, not Europe. After that top 6 qualify. 1v8, 2v7, 3v6, 4v5 aggregate series. Then one game semifinals (higher seed hosts), then MLS Cup. Probably would be fairer for higher seed to host this but if MLS wants a big nuetral site, that doesn’t bother me.

This probably doesn’t go as far as many hardcore soccer fans want but that’s why it’s plausible. This is a good way for MLS to keep conferences while making the playoff system fairer and easier for the causal fan to follow. Hopefully some changes will be instituted this off season.

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Boston’s Real Problem

After my entry last week, I got a number of comments. Some were helpful, others less so. I feel like clarifying and adding to my ideas from my last entry would be helpful. Also after some thought I realized what Boston’s real problem is which I’ll address at the end of this entry.

1. It was helpfully noted that the BAA operates with a “net runner” formula that predicts how many people will drop out and will get the field to a manageable size for the course. This sounds fine but a formula, no matter how accurate, is still little better than an educated guess. Given the sky-rocketing popularity of the event, leaving the exact number of entrants to a formula seems unfair. The BAA should pick a number that it thinks the course can handle. Then, if for any reason, the number of registered runners drops below that number, a waiting list should be in place to replace the missing runners. Even if this only allows a 100 more people to run, I think it would be worth it.

2. Apologies if this point looked like I was picking on women. I wasn’t. But just to cover my tracks, here’s a slightly different approach. Raise the qualifying standards for men AND women under 50 by 5 minutes. This would lessen the pool of qualified runners and hopefully lessen demand for a few years until runners get even better. I would leave older runner’s standards alone because you shouldn’t be left out of the chance to run a prestigious marathon just because you have aged.

3. I realize that this point might have hit home with a lot of people but some of the responses were unbelievable. I say verbatim in the entry that “charity is great”, and still I got attacked by people who evidently scored low on reading comprehension in grade school. I apologize for botching the exact number of charity runners; I do not apologize for questioning the system. Charity should be a large, visible part of any significant race. However refining the system might be helpful given the current popularity of the race. One idea I heard was to have charity runners meet a qualifying standard. This doesn’t seem unreasonable given that everyone else does. Running a race for charity is a great, noble, altruistic thing. But if you can’t qualify, run another race.

I hope the above clears some things up. However they all skip over the main problem: the flawed and overwhelmed registration system. Last year it took over two months to fill up. Given this window, it could reasonably be said to anyone who didn’t get in, well you should of been paying more attention. This year that window was less than NINE HOURS. Many people were at their computers feverisly pressing submit, to no avail. Some thought they could do it after work around 6PM. It closed at 5:03, sorry. Allowing people only a nine hour window is simply not fair.

I’m willing to give BAA a free pass this year. No one could predict how fast it would fill up. I bet most thought they would have at least a few days. However now that it is known how popular the race is, changes must be made to the registration system. I’m not sure exactly what the answer is here. Perhaps a lottery, or windows for different sets of runners to be able to apply. At the very least, the website needs to be updated so it can handle the expected traffic so that people don’t have to take three hours to merely register.

How to fix Boston.

On Monday The Boston Marathon filled up in an unprecedented 8+ hours. 21,000 slots snapped up. Inexplicably, that was and is the only chance that many qualified runners will have to enter this, the oldest and most prestigious of marathons. Many people are trying to paint this positively as a win for the popularity of running. I disagree. This event simply showed the overwhelming weakness of the current qualifying and registration system. Here are a few of my thoughts on how to improve the race. Full disclosure: I qualified and ran Boston in 2009 but did not attempt to register this year as my qualification time had expired.

1) Make a waiting list. This seems almost painfully obvious. Boston is not only incredibly popular but an event that requires an extraordinary amount of commitment and luck to even attempt. Between now and April, tons of people will drop out, for various reasons. And the BAA will say, “OK, great. Thanks for your money, now we have a smaller race.” This is absurd.

As soon as registration fills, people trying to get in should be notified that they have been put on a waiting list. Credit cards would not be charged until they move up the list into an actual racing spot. This one move alone would probably get a few thousand more people into the race.

2) Raise the women’s qualifying standards. Boston is one of the few races that require qualifying standards in order to register. They are far from impossible but stringent nonetheless. You have to be a solid runner and train well to meet them. Right now men aged 18-34 have to run 3:10 to qualify. Women of the same age only have to run 3:40 to qualify. Women athletics continue to improve and as running becomes ever more popular surely even better runners will continue to emerge. Elite women are typically only 15-20 minutes behind men. The BAA should move the women’s standards up at least 10 minutes to 3:30.  This would certainly lessen the pool of runners able to qualify and therefore lessen the burden on registration. Will many complain that this makes it harder to qualify? Of course. But guess what, it’s a marathon. It’s supposed to be hard.

3) Lessen charity slots and put a lottery in for those slots. It’s easy to forget with all the well meaning charities out there that a marathon is (and should be) about running. Right now thousands of slots at Boston go to charities. You have to raise a significant amount of money but get to avoid the bothersome task of running a qualifying time. Rich people and big corporations can just pay out of pocket and boom: one less spot for a legitimate hard working runner. Charity runners should be limited, perhaps to about 1,ooo or 2,000 total. Whoever want to do the run as charity should be entered in a lottery. If you’re picked you are in. Charity is great but actual qualified runners should not be penalized for not being a part of an official charity.

I would estimate that each of these changes would allow 2-3,000 more runners a year to enter Boston, at least in the short term. Will people still be left out? Sure, but at least the system will be fairer and make more sense.