A passionate sport is in the middle of its playoffs in America and nobody seems to notice. While flying under the radar, the Major League Soccer Playoffs have been filled with raucous crowds and thrilling action on the pitch.
With the knockout rounds and conference semifinals over, it’s now down to the Western Conference Championship between the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake. In the Eastern Conference, the last two teams remaining are Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo.
The MLS Playoffs go largely unnoticed in the spectrum of American sports because the MLS must compete with the likes of the National Football League, college football, NBA, college basketball and for the first portion of the MLS Playoffs, Major League Baseball.
Football is certainly the juggernaut of American sports as far as attention and headlines go, but the MLS Playoffs are deserving of more attention from the public, as well as more coverage from the sports media. Soccer’s publicity is rising in the United States, and the MLS Playoffs deserve a platform that reflect that popularity.
ESPN has a knack for promoting sporting events that are only on its own airwaves. A recent example of this is when Baylor hosted Oklahoma on the Fox Sports 1 network. On the same night as that Big 12 showdown, ESPN was televising the Oregon at Stanford game.
As a result, in the days leading up to Thursday of both football games, ESPN clearly devoted more attention to the Oregon vs. Stanford game while turning a blind eye to Oklahoma at Baylor. A fan would argue that the Pac-12 matchup features higher ranked teams than OU vs. Baylor, which is true, but it still does not justify the lack of attention ESPN devoted to arguably the Big 12’s biggest game.
For the MLS, the same concept holds true. Leading up to the MLS Cup, every single round of the MLS Playoffs schedule is televised by NBC or NBC Sports Network. Therefore, ESPN devotes minimal time to covering the MLS. This changes when ESPN airs the MLS Cup, which is where a champion is crowned in American soccer.
The MLS Cup is on Dec. 7 on ESPN, where it will attract a wide viewing audience, and ESPN surely will hype up the match all week leading up to the final.
In the meantime, the second leg of the conference championships are taking place on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24 between four fantastic soccer clubs.
The Houston Dynamo won two MLS Cups and are a team powered by a brilliant coach in Dominic Kinnear and veteran leadership with midfielder Brad Davis serving as captain. For Dynamo home matches, the Houston crowd is decked out in orange in a jubilant, thrilling atmosphere for championship soccer.
The same can be said for Houston’s opponent, Sporting Kansas City, which is one of the 10 charter clubs of the MLS. Sporting KC won the MLS Cup in 2000. Sporting Park in Kansas City is one of the gems of MLS stadiums. An intimate soccer-specific building with loyal fans creates an immediate aura around the pitch.
With the Houston Dynamo and Sporting KC serving as two franchises with championship pedigrees, the Eastern Conference Finals will be entertaining as the first leg featured a 0-0 draw between the two teams so all is even for the final winner-take-all aggregate match in Kansas City.
Out west, the upstart Portland Timbers were pummeled 4-2 by Real Salt Lake in the first leg of the Western Conference Finals. Real Salt Lake has a winning tradition and last won the MLS Cup in 2009.
The Portland Timbers joined the MLS in 2011 and quickly developed arguably the league’s nastiest rivalry with Seattle Sounders FC.
The Timbers have one of the most feared fan bases in the MLS, and those fans will have to help the Timbers overcome a 4-2 deficit to Real Salt Lake when the two clubs meet on Nov. 24 in Portland.
The MLS deserves more attention, but the MLS also must re-evaluate its bizarre scheduling practices to help itself in the eyes of the public.
For example, the first knockout round of the MLS playoffs was on Oct. 30 and the MLS Cup will not be played until Dec. 7. This means in the span of roughly six weeks, the MLS is holding a playoff that features a maximum number of six matches possible for a single team.
It should not take six weeks for a club to play a maximum number of six matches.
Part of this dilemma is the MLS’ concerted effort to avoid scheduling matches during other notable sporting events. For example at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday Nov. 7, when Baylor hosted Oklahoma and Oregon faced Stanford at 8 p.m., the Seattle Sounders faced the Portland Timbers at 10 p.m. in an effort to pull in a larger audience. This makes perfect sense in this given scenario, but it causes roadblocks in other areas of the playoffs.
The first leg of the two conference championships started on Saturday. Unfortunately, there is a two-week gap between the first leg and the second leg because the second leg does not take place until Nov. 23 and 24.
This gap in matches allows the anticipation to die down and it causes even the most ardent MLS fans to forget that the playoffs are happening.
The MLS needs to schedule its playoffs in a more timely manner to direct soccer fans to its product. The MLS Playoffs deliver an entertaining product; sadly, too few people witness these captivating matches.
Sports fans should give the MLS Playoffs a shot and tune in for a new, thrilling experience.