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Thursday, November 11, 2010
Eastern Conference final only in name


The assignment came down the old pipeline a few months ago. "You're covering the Eastern Conference final," my editor bellowed down the cast-iron pipe affixed to the wall above my typewriter. After swatting away the cigar smoke that had accompanied his message from above, I tightened my suspenders, put on my straw hat and, after returning from the haberdasher, wondered where I could possibly be sent.

Anywhere, I discovered.

MLS has an asymmetric playoff structure. The two top teams of both leagues make it into the playoffs, then the four best remaining teams, from either conference, join them. This year, the Western Conference's dominance was such that it produced all four wild-card teams, meaning two of them would play in the Eastern Conference bracket. That's how last year's Eastern Conference champion was Real Salt Lake and this year's final will pit the San Jose Earthquakes against the Colorado Rapids. For the second year running, the Eastern Conference will have no true champion.

So it is, in other words, that I'll be leaving the cozy confines of the East Coast to fly to Denver on Friday to cover, of all things, the Eastern Conference final.

What's more, if Seattle Sounders hadn't lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals, the Western title would have been decided in Dallas. The Western Conference would have been decided east of the Eastern Conference final.

While the asymmetric system might be more democratic, it also looks silly. Let's straighten out the structure and offer each conference four spots -- no more, no less. Some years, one conference will be stronger, some years the other. It will all even out in the end. But at least you'd avoid the confusion and crown a true champion of each conference.