Yesterday I wrote about the youth of the Columbus Crew as they prepare for what will be the first playoff appearance for many of their players, but it is not just the youth that is inexperienced in the post season. Although youthful inexperience will play a part, the Crew also have several foreign players and to them, the idea of a playoff to decide a champion may be, well foreign.
In many soccer leagues around the world, the champion is determined over the course of the season by the team with the most points. In the United States, that team gets the highest seed in the post-season tournament. In MLS, the top team gets credited with the Supporter's Shield, but that is not the league champion.
"I'm sure it's a little strange for them knowing that the Supporter's Shield, while it's swell to win it, that's not really what's celebrated in our league," Columbus captain Michael Parkhurst said.
Both Parkhurst and Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said it's not something that usually takes too much explaining to the foreign players. As Parkhurst pointed out, most of these players know of other American sports and have watched something like the NBA playoffs or the Super Bowl. Berhalter pointed to another part of soccer culture that makes it easier to understand for players from abroad.
"It's like a cup format," he said. "If you're in any foreign leagues, you've played in cups before and it's elimination and a lot of those cups are home and away games."
Many leagues have tournaments outside league play consisting of teams from all sorts of levels. Many of these are one-off games or over two legs, similar to the U.S. Open Cup and the way the MLS playoffs are constructed. Then it just becomes explaining why the league has this type of tournament to determine the champion.
"When you look at it, there's always comments on that from players coming from abroad and I think what you need to establish is that it's not a balanced schedule," Berhalter explained.
"You don't have everyone playing against everyone an equal amount of times. There's two conferences. So it's very hard to say that the team with the most points is the best team in the league. So that's why they have the playoffs."
While the foreign players on the Crew may not have competed in the MLS playoffs, many of them have been in similar situations and can provide the experience needed to help the Black and Gold get through. According to Parkhurst, every player understands the pressure of the playoffs already because they've been working in that type of environment for the last month and a half.
"I don't think anyone needs to tell a couple of the foreign guys whose first year it is with us the severity of it," he said.
"We've been talking about it for weeks now that that's the main goal and it's a new season once you get there so I think they understand."