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Real Salt Lake: Higher seeds are not bearing much fruit

Published: Sunday, Nov. 7 2010 1:36 a.m. MDT

SANDY — Advantage, what advantage?

The way the Major League Soccer playoff format is set up, and the way the results have panned out, there doesn't appear to be any advantage to being the higher seed.

Real Salt Lake found that out the hard way, falling to FC Dallas with a 3-2 aggregate score following Saturday night's 1-1 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Since 2003, the first round of the MLS playoffs features a home-and-away, two-game series with the higher seeded team hosting the second contest before the conference finals and MLS Cup are a one-game, winner-take-all format. In each of the previous two seasons, RSL entered as the lower seed — in 2008 it was the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and faced second-seeded Chivas USA, and in 2009 it was the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and played top-seed Columbus. RSL benefitted from being the lower seed and hosting the first leg, winning 1-0 each time. The team then went on the road for the second game and was able to win the aggregate score.

"I don't know. I've been thinking a lot about it because I do think there is something to be said for playing the first game at home and getting yourself off to a good start," said coach Jason Kreis of whether the higher seed benefits from having the second leg at home. "It's worked for us in the past, so maybe it is an advantage to play that first game at home."

With Real falling to Dallas, the higher seed in this year's playoffs fell to 0-3 — in the Eastern Conference San Jose (No. 4) beat New York (No. 1) and Colorado (No. 3) got past Columbus (No. 2). Los Angeles (No. 1 in Western Conference) faces Seattle (No. 4) later tonight at the Home Depot Center with a 1-0 advantage.

Over the seven years since the format change, the higher seed has won only 15 of 27 series, or 55.5 percent of the time. Only the inaugural year of 2003 has all four of the higher seeds advanced. In 2005, three lower seeds advanced — all four lower seeds have never advanced. Comparing that with the NBA in the first round of playoffs, from 1999-2008, the team with home-court advantage won 65 of 80 series, or 81.3 percent.

"We are not going to sit here and complain about it," said defender Nat Borchers. "Last year, it played into our favor. We won against Columbus here at home, and then went there and beat them. It is tough, though, the seeding.

"For me it doesn't matter," he added. "You just have to battle and win the series regardless of where it is played."

"It is what it is, complaining about it isn't really going to change anything," said forward Robbie Findley, who scored Real's goal in the 1-1 draw.

If the stats continue to show there is almost no advantage to having the better regular season and thus earning the higher seed, what is the solution?

"I've got an interesting suggestion," said Kreis. "What if every game (round of the playoffs) was one game? Why is the first round two games, and then the rest of the way one game? It seems odd to me, so why not give the higher seed the one game, the whole way?"

e-mail: mblack@desnews.com

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