MLS playoffs are fun, but they can be better

MLS playoffs are fun, but they can be better
MLS playoffs are fun, but they can be better

For the first time since 2003, the top seeds from each conference qualified for the MLS Cup. Naturally, MLS now wants to change the format that was designed with this being one of its explicit goals – to reward regular season excellence.

Athletic reported last week that MLS is considering significant changes to the playoff format that could be implemented as early as next year. The two main candidates are a return to the two-legged series similar to that used from 2003 to 2018, or a new format that would feature group stages.

One of the main driving forces behind this change is an apparent request from Apple – the league’s new streaming partner – to increase playoff game inventory. Right now, there are 13 total and they’d like it closer to 30. The two-legged plan would result in 25-29 playoff games — depending on whether the field was expanded to eight teams in each conference. – while the group stage plan would require 31 games and would also require the field to be expanded to 16 teams in total.

Before going into the details of each plan, I will note that there are competitive reasons for increasing the number of playoff games.

As fun as the current one-size-fits-all format is as a neutral – and this year we’re getting a dream match in the finals – I’ve always had sporting issues with it. My main concern is that MLS teams play a 34-game marathon season and then decide their championship with a sprint that lasts 3-4 games. At most, you’re talking about a playoff series that’s 11% as long as your regular season. In the NBA and NHL, the playoffs are the equivalent of 24-34%; in the NFL, it’s 18-25%; and in baseball 10-14%. Yes, the regular season offers the reward of hosting more games, but one bad game can ruin an otherwise amazing season, and a relatively short streak can result in a championship. We have seen this happen many times. The fact that we have only seen one team win the Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double from 2013 to 2021 illustrates this problem enough.

In particular, it has not always been so. From 1996 to 2002, MLS used a best-of-3 playoff format through to the final. In those seven seasons, the top two seeds qualified for the final four times and the winner of the Supporters’ Shield won the MLS Cup in those four years. During these seven seasons, the winner of the Shield has advanced at least one lap. My guess: More games combined with real home field advantage yields better results.

The other issue with this relatively short playoff period is a bit more related to Apple’s concern that there’s no real time to build narratives. Just listening to a show like ExtraTime Radio last week reminded me that despite all the hype around Austin FC or New York City FC “runs”, we are still talking about two games. They’re not particularly compelling stories and there’s so little time to tell them anyway.

So, yeah, consider me part of the “grow the playoffs” team. That said, I’m not sure I really like either solution as presented in The Athletic. Here are two plans that might work:

Part of the reason the two-legged format was scrapped in the first place was that it didn’t really give top seeds a competitive advantage, beyond the ability to play overtime at home. There was even a valid argument to be made that playing the first leg at home was preferable. Simply reviving that seems like a pretty lame idea, even if it includes the first seed getting a bye to the conference semifinals (which I doubt will last beyond a few years anyway ).

I think we should probably just expand the playoff field to 16 teams — eight from each conference — because that seems inevitable as long as MLS continues to grow. I hope we commit to stopping there, but that’s a question for another day. My twist on the format is actually in two parts:

  1. Give the home playoffs the No. 1 seeds all the way. That means playing both legs of the first three rounds at home as well as the right to host the MLS Cup.
  2. The other twist is to get rid of away goals and simply award the first tiebreaker to the highest seed until the MLS Cup. This at least gives the 2-4 seeds a real advantage. Yeah, I know that could lead to some boring game plans from the top seeds, but it’s offset by the fact that the bottom seeds have the incentive to go all out knowing they can’t not play for overtime or penalties.

It would obviously be a much bigger change, but as someone who championed a similar format when Brian Straus first recommended it nearly a decade ago, I think it deserves genuine consideration.

It has been observed that the regular season is already a kind of group stage. Cutting it down for the playoffs is just a little redundant. I get that and I don’t really have a big rebuttal, but I think it underscores how important it is to make the regular season meaningful in this format.

As stated in The Athletic article, giving the top two seeds in each group two home games and one to each of the lower seeds DOES NOT do that. It’s frankly a silly idea, especially considering the optics of the No. 1 seed in the group having to play on the road against the No. 4 seed. I’m honestly a little amazed that this is even considered.

The solution is simple and one that Straus already suggested in his original plan: the highest seed hosts all group stage matches. Yes, that means the No. 1 seeds get three home games and the No. 4 seeds get zero. This will no doubt annoy some owners who feel more teams should stage playoff games, but their argument is anti-competitive and shouldn’t be the primary concern of a league still vying for credibility.

I have one other change from the format suggested in The Athletic — hosting rights for the conference semifinals should be determined by roster finish, not regular season points. The two group stage winners from each conference would host the runners-up. I would suggest that the conference final and MLS Cup hosting rights SHOULD be determined by regular season points. What I like about this solution is that it balances the danger of draws in the final game of the group stage while rewarding regular season performance.

From an audience perspective, I think this format has the added benefit of increasing interest in games that don’t involve your team. One of the main problems facing MLS is that for many fans, they are only fans of the league insofar as that is where their team plays. I’ve spoken to many Sounders fans, for example, who just don’t care about games that don’t involve the Sounders – other than maybe hating watching the Timbers. A group stage doesn’t solve this problem perfectly, but it does at least make the rest of your team’s group matches compelling.

Either format promises to add games to what is already an increasingly packed MLS schedule. Top teams would end up playing 3-4 more games than they currently do, depending on the format selected. That’s on top of potentially seven more League Cup games, up to eight CCL games, six US Open Cup games and the potential for even more in things like the Club World Cup and the Cup. of the Campeones. Something has to give, and I hope it’s not the health of the players.

I think we have to consider cutting the regular season. The simplest would be to go down to 32 games, which only forces each team to give up one home game. But there’s a pretty good argument for going all the way down to 30, which is the number of games played by MLS teams between 2003 and 2010.

In addition to reducing player attrition, this sets up a scenario where you can easily split the league into Eastern and Western conferences that don’t play in the regular season.

Assuming MLS eventually expands to 32 teams, this allows the league to split into two 16-team conferences and play a double round robin without intersecting. It also adds a bit more intrigue to the League Cup, where teams will only face group stage opponents they don’t normally face in the regular season.

Speaking of League Cup, I would also suggest using the first half of the season as the ranking mechanism rather than the previous season (as is currently the case). This adds even more weight to each regular season game and also makes it feel like two separate halves.

Combine all of this and I think there is real potential to satisfy the wants and needs of different parties. I know that another playoff format change – as well as the widening of the field – will annoy a certain subgroup of fans, but as long as there is a commitment to stick with this change, I think that these concerns are greatly mitigated.

A version of this column first appeared in the Nos Audietis newsletter. You can read and subscribe to it here.

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