- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

Major League Soccer is a work in progress. One day it will all make sense, but for the time being, hang in there.

In its six-year history, MLS has tinkered with its playoff system several times and still hasn't gotten it right. Last year MLS went from a best-of-3 series to the innovative but confusing "first-to-five" format for playoff matchups before the championship game.

In the "first-to-five" system, the first team to get five or more points advances. A team earns three points for a win, one for a tie. What this means is that if the teams tie one game, the series has to go to three games because a team can't get five points from a win or a tie. Are you still with me?

Take for example the current series between the Chicago Fire and the Dallas Burn. Chicago beat Dallas at home in Game 1 (2-0) and tied the Burn on the road in Game 2 (1-1). In most leagues in the world, including America's A-League, Chicago would advance with the 3-1 goal aggregate, but not in MLS. Chicago has only a 4-1 point lead in the "first-to-five" system and must play again.

The series goes to Game 3 at Soldier Field tonight with Chicago needing just a tie to move on. However, if Dallas wins, the series will be tied (4-4 in points), and immediately a sudden-death 20-minute mini-game must be played. If the result is still deadlocked, a penalty kick shootout will decide the outcome.

Confused?

"There is no format that is perfect, but what we wanted was something where games would be decided on the field in front of the fans rather than by virtue of a one-sided result in the previous game," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidas said.

The format is such a touchy issue that MLS felt compelled to post Gazidas' 800-plus word "Rationale Behind the Playoff Format" on its Web site. It's fascinating reading, but oh for simplicity.

The most common playoff system in soccer is the home-and-away series with the aggregate score determining the winner. The first tiebreaker is goals scored on the road that count double; the final tiebreaker is penalty kicks.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, all 12 MLS coaches voted in favor of the home-and-away series but were snubbed by the league's competition committee. MLS changed the format to keep teams alive that lose big in the first game and to create "tension-packed third games" and, of course, to earn more revenue.

But what it really means is that a team can play badly and get crushed in its first game, then play a boring scoreless tie and still get a third chance. Now is that fair?

It's actually possible with the "first-to-five" format for teams to tie all three games four if you count the mini-game and still be deadlocked at three points apiece.

MLS has made some wise changes in the past: banning the shootout, keeping time on the field instead of the scoreboard and allowing the clock to run forward. Now it's time to fix the playoffs.

Owen injured

England will miss star forward Michael Owen for its crucial World Cup qualifier against Greece on Oct. 6. Owen limped off the field with a hamstring injury during Liverpool's 1-0 victory over Tottenham this weekend and will likely be out of action for two months. He scored a hat trick in England's last game, a 5-1 victory at Germany.

If England beats Greece, it will automatically qualify for the World Cup.

This week Owen, 21, re-signed with Liverpool, agreeing to a four-year contract reportedly worth $84,000 to $112,000 a week.

Americans overseas

A number of Americans were making headlines in Europe last weekend.

American goalie, Brad Friedel was named man of the match in some English newspapers after keeping a clean sheet in Blackburn's 2-0 win over Everton. Friedel made a brilliant late save on a close shot from Everton's American striker, Joe-Max Moore. He also saved a penalty kick in the game.

Former D.C. United midfielder Tony Sanneh, who plays for FC Nuernberg, was named player of the week in the German Bundesliga by Kicker magazine. Sanneh, a regular on the U.S. team, scored the the winning goal in Nuernberg's 2-1 win over Cologne.

Relatively unknown American midfielder Cory Gibbs has started two games for FC St. Pauli in the Bundesliga.

Youth tournament

France will face Nigeria tomorrow in the championship game of the FIFA under-17 championship in Trinidad and Tobago. Nigeria beat Burkina Faso 1-0 in the semifinals, and France downed Argentina 2-1 on Thursday. Burkina Faso, the Cinderella team of the tournament beat Costa Rica 2-0 in the quarterfinals. Two-time defending champion Brazil was defeated 2-1 by France in the quarterfinals.

World Cup qualifier

More than 35,000 tickets have been sold for the U.S. team's World Cup qualifier against Jamaica at Foxboro Stadium on Oct. 7.

"This game will be the one to get us to the 2002 World Cup," said coach Bruce Arena.

The U.S. team must defeat Jamaica to keep its hopes alive for a place in the 2002 finals. The Americans have a 6-0-3 record at Foxboro.

International notes

Spanish club Deportivo la Coruna scored two late goals to stun Manchester United in the Champions League this week. United has yet to beat a Spanish club on Spanish soil… . Inter Milan star Ronaldo strained a thigh muscle this week in just his second appearance after being out for 17 months with a knee injury. The Brazilian striker suffered the injury in Inter's 3-0 UEFA Cup win over Romanian club Brasov.

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