Saturday, May 15, 2010

Historic Playoff Hypotheticals

There have been countless arguments over the MLS playoff system and I'm not going to revisit that today. Rather, I thought I would take a look at MLS history and see just how things would've changed if the league's playoffs were a bit more exclusive. How much change would there actually be if the number of playoff teams was reduced by half?

Here's what I did. I reduced the number of teams in the playoffs to 4 instead of 8 for every season. I used the rules for each year (so top 2 in each conference except 2000-02), and I assumed that the team which advanced the furthest in the playoffs in real life would win each series. If two teams both exited in the same round, then I assumed the one with a better regular season record would advance.

I also did this for the NBA and NHL, which can be seen below for comparison.

Here's how the MLS Cups look in real life, and hypothetically with half the playoff teams (champions are listed first). Only changed years are listed under hypothetical:

Real Life

1996 DC vs LA

1997 DC vs COL
DC vs KC
1998 CHI vs DC

1999 DC vs LA

2000 KC vs CHI

2001 SJ vs LA
2002 LA vs NE

2003 SJ vs CHI

2004 DC vs KC

2005 LA vs NE
NE vs SJ
2006 HOU vs NE

2007 HOU vs NE

2008 CLB vs NY
2009 RSL vs LA

5/14 years would be different, and 3/14 champions:

  • 1997 - Runner up Colorado wouldn't have qualified, so Kansas City replaces them. KC/LA were the top two West seeds, and both lost their first round series.
  • 2001 - Champion San Jose finished 5th overall, losing a tiebreaker with Columbus. As the furthest advancing team, Los Angeles are picked over Miami.
  • 2005 - Champion LA would've missed the playoffs. San Jose vs Dallas would've been a playoff matchup, so SJ replaces LA in the title game with NE picked to win.
  • 2008 - Runner up New York out of the playoffs. Houston over Chivas (both first round losers) for an MLS Cup spot.
  • 2009 - Champion Real Salt Lake misses the playoffs. Chicago over CLB to advance and lose in the final.
Ultimately, LA/NE end up with an extra championship, while RSL/SJ lose one.

What about playoff berths? Amazingly, with the number of spots halved, the Rapids would still be looking for their first ever playoff appearance. Meanwhile, NY would only have one (2000):

Real Hyp
CHI 11 6
CHV 4 2
CLB 9 6
COL 9 0
DAL 10 5
DC 9 8
HOU 4 4
KC 9 4
LA 11 8
MIA 3 1
NE 10 5
NY 10 1
PHI 0 0
RSL 2 0
SEA 1 0
SJ 6 3
TB 4 3
TOR 0 0

How does this compare with other leagues? I originally investigated this subject because of the divisional realignment in MLB. There was talk before the season about the AL East and how three of the league's strongest teams (Rays, Red Sox, Yankees) were only competing for two playoff spots due to playing in the same division. A few weeks ago, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports had a great article where he pushed for something I've long thought to be a better system: Just get rid of divisions altogether and take the top four teams by record. That means geography would have nothing to do with a team's playoff chances. By the way, that's a great reason for MLS to go to a single table besides the tradition argument.

Anyway, I was curious how different the World Series would look each year if the strange divisions of the pre-wild card era (Atlanta/Cincinnati in the West, really?) were still in existence. I started looking into it, but it gets a bit messy since you have to deal with the 1998 expansion and assume some things. I decided to leave it out of this post as a result, and also the NFL because I don't know how you could halve the teams there (division winners only?). Also, both of those leagues don't have a lot of complaints about too many teams involved, unlike the NBA/NHL. Those two are much more comparable to MLS, so let's get to that. How would their champions/runners up look with only half the playoffs? I started with the first years both went to the current 16 team fields.

First, the NHL:

Real Life

1980 NYI vs PHI

1981 NYI vs MIN
1982 NYI vs VAN

1983 NYI vs EDM

1984 EDM vs NYI

1985 EDM vs PHI

1986 MON vs CAL

1987 EDM vs PHI

1988 EDM vs BOS

1989 CAL vs MON

1990 EDM vs BOS

1991 PIT vs MIN
1992 PIT vs CHI
1993 MON vs LA
1994 NYR vs VAN
1995 NJ vs DET
1996 COL vs FLO

1997 DET vs PHI

1998 DET vs WAS

1999 DAL vs BUF
2000 NJ vs DAL

2001 COL vs NJ

2002 DET vs CAR

2003 NJ vs ANA
2004 TB vs CAL
TB vs SJ
2006 CAR vs EDM
2007 ANA vs OTT

2008 DET vs PIT

2009 PIT vs DET

10/29 years with a different game, 3/29 with a different champion (1992, 1993, 1995).

Chicago/Detroit get an extra title, while Montreal/New Jersey each lose one.

The NBA:

Real Life

1984 BOS vs LAL

1985 LAL vs BOS

1986 BOS vs HOU

1987 LAL vs BOS

1988 LAL vs DET

1989 DET vs LAL

1990 DET vs POR

1991 CHI vs LAL

1992 CHI vs POR

1993 CHI vs PHO

1994 HOU vs NY

1995 HOU vs ORL
1996 CHI vs SEA

1997 CHI vs UTA

1998 CHI vs UTA

1999 SA vs NY
2000 LAL vs IND

2001 LAL vs PHI

2002 LAL vs NJ

2003 SA vs NJ

2004 DET vs LAL

2005 SA vs DET

2006 MIA vs DAL

2007 SA vs CLE

2008 BOS vs LAL

2009 LAL vs ORL

2/26 years were changed, that's it. Only one champion is different. It makes you wonder why they insist on keeping the playoffs so large. Orlando takes the 1995 title away from Houston (the only non-top 4 seed to win in these years).

At first, I thought that MLS didn't have much change. But it turns out that compared to the NHL and especially the NBA, it is quite a bit.

Diff Champs
MLS 36% 21%
NHL 34% 10%
NBA 8% 4%

First column = number of years with a difference in the title game if the league had half the playoff teams.

Second column = number of years with a different champion.

I don't think this post covers new ground, because we all know that the MLS playoff system doesn't do enough to reward strong regular seasons. We also know that best of 7 series lead to better teams winning more often. My main goal here was just to see what exactly would've changed.

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Comments on "Historic Playoff Hypotheticals"


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