Frequent contributor Jon Marthaler has written about virtually every sport in the Twin Cities, and fills in on Saturdays for the RandBall blog on StarTribune.com. He'll cover the professional soccer scene in the Twin Cities, whether at the Metrodome or at the National Sports Center.
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The North American Soccer League is switching up its playoff format yet again. Last season, the league introduced a split season, with the spring and fall champions meeting in the league title game. While this added some excitement to the first half of the season, it also killed the end of the second half, when the New York Cosmos clinched the fall title early.
This year, the league keeps the split-season champions, but will add two more teams, based on the standings for the entire season. If the same team wins both halves, then the three teams with the best full-season records will also make the playoffs.
The spring and fall champions will host the semi-final matchups and be given the top two seeds, based on their full-season records; the other teams will be seeded #3 and #4. The highest-seeded semi-final winner will host the league championship, which retains the moniker "Soccer Bowl."
The playoff change does not address the scheduling imbalance between the two seasons; the spring championship will still be a nine-game sprint, with the fall championship an 18-game relative marathon.
Most of the confusion with the new playoff scenarios will likely take place in the fall, when there will effectively be two sets of standings - the fall-season-only standings, and the full-season standings.
United team president Nick Rogers supported the move. "I think it’s a great move for the league," he said in a press release. "It protects the integrity of the competition and will keep teams in the hunt further into the season while at the same time ensuring that every match continues to matter."
Had the system been in place last year, United would still have missed the playoffs. Carolina and Tampa Bay, which finished as the two teams with the best full-season records last year, would have joined Atlanta (third-best full-season record) and New York (fifth over the full season) in the playoffs; Minnesota would have been left out in fourth, four points behind Tampa Bay.
Cold will be a factor, should Minnesota reach the playoffs this season and host. The games will take place deep into the potential snow season, with the semifinals November 8 and 9 and the league championship on the following weekend.
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