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Major League Soccer's playoffs are underway and once again there are some new rules in effect.
For some clarification, Bill Littlefield spoke with Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl.
BL: MLS has tweaked the playoff format several times over the past decade or so. Is it accurate to suggest that all the tweaking has been in the service of making the U.S. league more like the leagues in Europe and the U.K.?
[sidebar title="A New Franchise In LA" width="630" align="right"] Chivas USA has folded, but a new franchise — owned, in part, by Magic Johnson, Nomar Garciaparra and Mia Hamm — is establishing itself in LA. Creating a distinct brand from the popular LA Galaxy will be its first challenge. [/sidebar]GW: Well, it's going to be different from the start because they have playoffs, like sports in other U.S. sports leagues. And yet, I do think they've made one change this year that is like European soccer in the sense that the away goals tiebreaker is now in effect for the first time in the MLS playoffs. If the cumulative score is tied after the two legs, the first tiebreaker is actually who scored the most goals on the road.
BL: It seems to me that there's a risk of confusing further U.S. audiences, who are not familiar with this idea that if you hit a home run in the other guy's park it counts more than the home run you hit at home. It doesn't make sense to them.
GW: I can understand that a little bit, but I do think that the American soccer fan has gotten sophisticated enough that the away goals tiebreaker isn't something that's going to totally confuse them. That's not my issue with the rule so much as I think that the lower seeds in the MLS playoffs need to have a higher hill to climb to get to the final. We've seen too many eight- and nine-seeds get to the championship game in recent years.
BL: Landon Donovan, whom some consider to be the most accomplished player ever to wear the U.S. uniform, will retire after this season. This lends a certain drama to the fortunes of his MLS team, the Los Angeles Galaxy in these playoffs, doesn't it?
GW: Oh yeah. Any one of these games could be Landon Donovan's last game as a player. And here's a guy who is the greatest U.S. Men's National Team player in history, the greatest player in MLS history. He holds the goal scoring and assist records for the U.S. National Team and MLS. And he's only 32 years old. So a lot of people would think he's probably retiring earlier than they might have expected, but this will indeed be his last season. So there's certainly an added element of drama in these games knowing this might be the last time we see him play.
BL: In the east, the New England Revolution seem to have gotten hot at the right time. Has the mid-season addition of one player ever had a greater impact on a team than the acquisition of World Cup star Jermaine Jones has had on New England?
[sidebar title="Jermaine Jones' Odd Journey To New England" width="630" align="right"] After some confusion surrounding his transfer, Jermaine Jones of the U.S. Men’s National Team is now a member of the second-seeded Revolution. Bill Littlefield examines the odd rules that helped him land there. [/sidebar]GW: It's really hard for me to imagine a previous year in MLS when one player added in the mid-season has made this much of a difference, but Jones has been terrific for New England. Ever since he joined the team, about a month after the World Cup, now they're probably the best team lately on the field in MLS. He really has added some bite to the midfield and some scoring punch as well, and they've got a decent chance to win this whole thing.
BL: It may seem early in the playoff process to ask you for a prediction, but I'm going to do it anyway. Who is likely to come away with the hardware this time around?
GW: The funny thing about this, Bill, is that before the season I kind of went out on a limb and predicted New England would win the MLS Cup, and there are very few of us who cover MLS who would have thought that. Granted, I didn't know that Jermaine Jones would be joining the team mid-season, but they really are good right now and I think they have a chance to go all the way. I think LA and Seattle also have a very good chance. They were the best teams during the regular season.
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This segment aired on November 8, 2014.
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