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November 28, 2016

Seattle Sounders further proving that the MLS regular season really doesn't matter

The Seattle Sounders are headed to their first MLS Cup without Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, or Sigi Schmid.

Leading the charge instead are a rookie striker, a former assistant coach, and a playmaking midfielder who joined the team after 59 percent of the season had already been played. Only one of those three figures was in his current position when the campaign began with three straight losses in March.

Seattle is now playing for a title after defeating Colorado 1-0 on Sunday night, becoming the only team to best the Rapids in Commerce City this year. The finish was truly paradoxical for a Colorado club that posted seven 1-0 wins at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in 2016.

The most boring adage of all time rings entirely true: it's not how you start, it's how you finish, and for the Sounders, it took one good firing, one good hire, and one good signing.

That's it.

They sacked their coach, promoted an assistant, and made a real effort to get a game-changing player when a lot of other teams were sitting on their butts in the transfer market.

Schmid was let go after a 3-0 road loss that left Seattle with a record of just five wins, two draws, and 13 losses. Brian Schmetzer took the reigns on an interim basis as the club finalized a deal for Uruguay international midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro.

The thought was that those moves might re-energize a talented team that clearly had quit on its coach. Maybe Lodeiro would solve the offensive issues that seemed to stem from Martins' departure and Schmid's switch to a 4-3-3 system. Maybe the Sounders could scrape into the playoffs and do some damage as a five seed or a six seed. Stranger things have happened.

It started swimmingly, with Dempsey bagging five goals in the first four games of the Schmetzer and Lodeiro era. The Uruguayan provided assists and goals of his own. He didn't seem to need the transitional period that most mid-season DP signings require. This was not a Tim Cahill, Andrea Pirlo, or Tranquillo Barnetta situation. Lodeiro came ready to play.

Team form might have faltered when Dempsey was sidelined with a heart issue and later shut down for the season. Lesser clubs would have folded, but not Seattle, and they finished the season 5-2-3 without Dempsey, earning the fourth seed in the western conference playoffs.

Seattle entered the postseason with 14 losses, the same amount as your team, your town, your Philadelphia Union. The difference is that one side was trending upward, and the other was pretty much cooked.

Recurring themes

The Sounders are a great story, but it does make you wonder why we play a 34 game season that takes eight months to complete.

That's been the theme for six years running.

Start with the 2015 Portland Timbers, a club that began that season with two wins, five losses, and four draws. Caleb Porter's hot seat quickly cooled off when his players figured it out late, putting together a nine-game unbeaten streak from October 14th to December 6th. Portland beat Columbus 2-1 in Ohio to claim the cup.

The 2014 LA Galaxy started with four wins, three losses, and three draws in that title-winning season. Bruce Arena's team pulled away with a pair of streaks in the late spring and early fall, going eight and ten games unbeaten in those respective runs.

2013 Kansas City started with five wins, four losses, and two draws. They earned the second seed in the east by winning six of their last eight games and losing just twice in their final thirteen. One of those defeats was an unlikely 1-0 result against Philadelphia in September, with Conor Casey the only scorer at Livestrong Park.

And the 2012 Galaxy might be the best example of regular season inconsequentiality, with just six wins, one draw, and eight losses to start the season. They looked strangely sluggish in that title defense, but flicked the switch in the summer to finish with 13 wins, four losses, and four draws.

These examples are not unique to Major League Soccer.

The New York Giants won a pair of Super Bowls with 10-6 and 9-7 records, twice taking the wild card route to the Lombardi Trophy.

The 2014 San Francisco Giants were 62-57 on August 12th and lost nine of 15 to finish the season, settling for a wild card spot behind the division-leading Dodgers. San Fran started the postseason 8-2, then beat the Royals in seven games to claim a third World Series in five years.

You certainly remember the 2009-10 Flyers season, with a finals appearance made possible only by a shootout win on the last day of the regular season.

And in the NBA, the Cavaliers and Warriors will probably plod through the winter while giving about 50 percent effort and still finishing in first place.

Offering a solution

I'm a huge college football fan, and part of the reason for that is because every regular season game matters. For all of the flaws surrounding the playoff and bowl system, you have to admit that there's a game of consequence on TV every week, starting from day one of the season.

That's not entirely the case for the NFL, where you're afforded a few slip ups. The only flaw with that system is the quirk that occasionally allows a 7-9 or 8-8 team into the playoffs. Otherwise, the league has a strong regular and postseason setup.

When you look at structural problems, MLS is probably most similar to MLB, which is to say that the season is just too damn long.

Imagine playing 162 baseball games, then getting knocked out in a one-game wild-card series like that team from western Pennsylvania. What's the point? I love October baseball. Give me more of that, and less of the empty stadiums we see in June and July.

It's the same in MLS, where the eventual winner plays around 40 games in ten months, with international breaks and U.S. Open Cup games sandwiched in between. Our season is longer than the four major American sports, plus college football and basketball. It gives us less downtime in the winter, but the regular season is diluted with games that just don't matter, like that midweek Houston and San Jose matchup that you spend 15 minutes watching on MLS live.

A better way to approach the season would be to reduce the number of conference games against the same opponent. The addition of Atlanta and Minnesota gives us 22 clubs going into 2017.

If you play each conference opponent home and away, that gives you 20 total games. Add one game against each non-conference opponent, and you would have 11 more matches, giving you a 31 game schedule, down from 34.

The positive is that you're clipping three games from an already bloated slate. The downside is that you only get two New York derbies, or Cascadia matchups, and you reduce the amount of rivalry games that generally garner higher interest. MLS benefits from three nationally televised Portland and Seattle games, and cutting back on that might not match the long-term broadcasting goals of MLS and its television partners. I'd rather watch three California Clasicos instead of two, but I also don't think we need three Chicago Fire and D.C. United games on the calendar.

You also might be able to leverage that new schedule into a better date for MLS Cup, which I think should be played on Black Friday. We don't need the playoffs going into December, especially when we already have to pause for that momentum-killing November international break. A post-Thanksgiving MLS Cup would be absolutely perfect for a soccer audience that probably isn't watching college football and definitely isn't waiting in line for holiday deals at the King of Prussia Mall.