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What the MLS Playoff Slate Says About U.S. Soccer

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The teams that make a professional sport's playoffs can say a lot about the league they're playing in.

This year's Major League Baseball playoffs, for example, showed that small-market, small-payroll teams with a smart front office (The Oakland A's, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians) can still get a place at the table with big-spending, big-market squads studded with stars (the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers). Ultimately, however, it showed that excelling in this league means having the right combination of administrative acumen and deep-pocketed ownership. It's a big reason why the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox have combined to win five of the past 10 World Series.

It's a bit tougher to speak in such general terms about Major League Soccer's playoff teams. The MLS has a small fraction of Major League Baseball's history and just as small a slice of its fan base. Last season, Major League Baseball's 30 teams drew 74.9 million fans to their ballparks and pulled in more than 30,000 per game. Major League Soccer's 19 clubs had 6 million fans come through the turnstiles and 18,800 show up on average for each match. Baseball has its own network that it built with DirecTV (DTV) and still has Fox (NWS), TBS (TWX) and ESPN (DIS) paying for game rights, while MLS makes do with its deals with ESPN, NBC and Univision.

When it comes to average attendance, however, pro baseball and soccer rank No. 2 and 3, respectively, behind the National Football League. In some cases, MLS teams even draw more fans per game than Major League Baseball team. -- including teams that happen to share the same city. In fact, all five of the MLS teams we recognized outdrawing baseball teams on average back in July have made the playoffs.

How those teams did it, however, represents a fundamental difference between the strategies MLS used 17 years ago and those it implements today. In its earliest days and as recently as 2007, when the Los Angeles Galaxy brought David Beckham over from Real Madrid, the MLS was a league that planted tentpole stars from world soccer and the U.S. men's national team in key markets and hoped that their familiar faces would bring in the fans.

In big, high-profile markets, this remains the case. The New York Red Bulls, the first team to make this year's MLS playoffs, are benefiting heavily from the presence of French star Thierry Henry and Australia's Tim Cahill. Each leads the team in either goals, assists or shots and, if not for the presence of gifted Argentinian striker Fabian Espindola, would dominate shots on goal as well. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the Galaxy continue to load up on star talent and count USMNT star Landon Donovan and Irish national team striker Robbie Keane as the core of their offense.

While one could make the argument that this is what the MLS wants -- to have its biggest international draws in its biggest cities and to have each of those cities succeed, as the Galaxy has with multiple MLS Cup titles -- the reality of the league insists that a different model may be more representative of the today's MLS. The Galaxy ranks second in league attendance and regularly fills StubHub Center, but there are six other teams ahead of the Red Bulls on the attendance sheet.

Three of them -- the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake -- didn't enter the league until a decade or more after New York and Los Angeles. The Sounders averaged 44,000 fans per game this season and have outdrawn Major League Baseball's neighboring Seattle Mariners regularly since entering the league in 2009.

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