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Does a first-round playoff bye really matter in MLS?

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We ponder...

MLS: MLS Cup John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When Minnesota United’s third goal went in I panicked.

A wave of sadness and anxiety crashed and every reasonable thought I had ever had about Atlanta United and its future washed away and everything got dark and blurry and I couldn’t remember how to describe the color red and I couldn’t remember why I would ever need to describe the color red and the walls got closer and the chair got smaller and I couldn’t feel my ears why can’t I feel my ears and we’re never going to win ever again and there’s no way we’ll ever win a championship now everything is over forever dear god why.

This was an overreaction.

Most of the panic came from a place of uninhibited Atlanta-sports PTSD, but adding to my concern was a fear that the loss had ruined any chance at an MLS Cup.

The loss meant that Atlanta will likely finish behind second-place NYCFC in the Eastern Conference standings, and will have to play a single elimination game in the playoff’s first round rather than having a first-round bye.

To me that meant obtaining an MLS Cup had become exponentially harder. But does a lack of a first-round bye (FRB from here on out, thanks) really mean the chances of a first-season championship for Atlanta are next to impossible?

After some research, yeah, no, not really.

At first glance you don’t have to look any further than the last two years. Last year’s MLS Cup featured fourth-seeded Seattle beating third-seeded Toronto. The 2015 edition saw third-seeded Portland take home the cup. Simply put, in the two years since the playoffs expanded to six teams, ¾ of MLS Cup participants did not have FRB’s.

The knockout round began in 2011 -- the fourth and fifth seed faced off rather than the 3-6, 4-5 format that began in 2015 -- and eight of the 16 knockout round winners have advanced to the conference final, five of those teams advanced to MLS Cup, and three outright won (LAG 2012, Portland 2015, Seattle 2016). So, ⅓ of conference finalist, 5/12 of MLS Cup participants, and ½ of MLS Cup winners since 2011 did not have FRB’s.

All considered, being one of the top two teams and earning a FRB doesn’t mean much when it comes to MLS Cup hopes. Once the playoffs become four teams from each conference, the whole thing becomes a crap-shoot.

The average seed of MLS Cup winners since 2005 is 2.67, meaning that third and fourth seeds are winning more often than not. Why? Idunno. But it’s apparent that if you make it past the knockout round, absolutely nothing prior matters.

The good news for Atlanta fans is that all it takes to get past the knockout round is to be in your own stadium. Home teams have an all-time record of 13-3 in knockout round games. Since 2011, home teams are 11-1.

Unless there’s a catastrophic ending to the year (Which there could be. Do NOT tempt the dread god.) and Columbus and Chicago both pass Atlanta United to send them into 5th place, Atlanta United will host their knockout round game. Atlanta’s record at home is 11 wins, three losses and two ties. The away records of their three potential opponents are: 4-10-2, 3-9-3 and 4-8-4. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about winning an elimination game at home.

From there, who knows? Atlanta will either face a solid NYCFC team or a Toronto FC team on pace for the best season in MLS history. Whatever you think will happen there, you’re almost definitely wrong. The only thing we know is that it will be stressful as hell and I’ll probably spend most of each match in the fetal position.

At the least, we know that finishing outside the top two doesn’t mean the end of the world has come. At least not yet.