MLS’ playoff structure is for the lack of a better term, flawed. It’s not perfect and MLS is forced to have a break in between the playoffs due to the November FIFA international break. It seems like MLS has a plan to fix some of those issues but I’m not quite sure it’ll solve anything.
FourFourTwo revealed last month that MLS was planning on keeping the same format but going single elimination throughout the entire postseason. This would start after the international break and MLS won’t have that annoyance and in theory, make home games and the regular season more important as top teams host. While it was unlikely to pass last month, it seems that there is a renewed interest and could be passed for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
There is some merit to this new system and it does solve the international break issue. The other reasons seem flawed and I’m not sure MLS realizes that. I have my own proposal that keeps the current format and causes the MLS Cup Playoffs to start after the international break and still result in the MLS Cup Final to be played on the same weekend.
Lower the number of teams who make the playoffs!!!
There are way too many teams who make the MLS Cup Playoffs. For instance, the San Jose Earthquakes have the sixth seed in the West and they have more losses than wins (13-7-14) and a -21 goal differential. And if you thought this was an anomaly, the previous two seasons that had 12 teams make the playoffs, had teams that had more losses than wins (2016 only) and negative goal differential. Now, 12 of 22 teams make the MLS Cup Playoffs, meaning 55% of the league make the postseason. Only the NBA and NHL at 53% have an over 50% rate for playoff teams and many complain about how the regular season doesn’t matter in those leagues and that the postseason is way too long.
MLS falls into this trap of its playoffs dragging way too long so lowering the number of teams not only makes the MLS Cup Playoffs shorter but make it more exclusive so the regular season is worth more.
In my proposal, we drop the total of MLS Cup Playoff qualifiers from 12 to 8 and only take the top four teams in each conference. By doing this, just 36% of MLS teams make the postseason this year while that drops a percentage point when LAFC joins MLS next season. That would put it on the level of MLB and the NFL in terms of postseason exclusivity.
In terms of structuring the postseason schedule, MLS can start after the international break and still have a two-legged series. Start the first game of the Conference Semifinals the weekend of November 18 and have the second leg midweek on the 21st or 22nd so players can be home for Thanksgiving. The Conference Finals would then start the weekend of November 25 and you can either make it midweek on the 28th or go to the next weekend on December 2. And then have the MLS Cup Final December 9, which is the date for this year’s final.
What’s more important with this is by starting the MLS Cup Playoffs three weeks later, MLS can extend the regular season and make it so matches aren’t as congested. Maybe MLS can even do it where teams aren’t playing during international breaks, which is an issue many people have about MLS.
A single elimination structure sounds great but that system is flawed due to MLS’ parity league wide. Parity in MLS can be great compared to other leagues where the same couple teams win but that also hurts MLS in this case. The weaker team can try to, and sometimes win, when they have to hold back and defend for 90 or 120 minutes. The Seattle Sounders held off Toronto FC and won the MLS Cup and they didn’t even take a shot. They won in penalties after going 0-0. That same scenario would likely happen in other games. At least with two games, the stronger team has a better chance to win due to having to play 180 or 210 minutes.
And to give the higher seed an advantage in two-legged rounds, let’s give higher seeds the choice whether they want to host the first or second leg. If a team feels they are better off hosting first and try to get an early advantage, let them host first. If a team feels better away so they could get it out of the way first and try and get an important away goal before heading home for the final leg, let them do that. Give the higher seed the power to make their road to the MLS Cup as easy as possible.
Sure, this system isn’t without its flaws but it’s better than what is currently out there and what is being considered. This may all be moot because it’s unlikely MLS will consider a system where they lower the number of teams but that’s the key to everything. Maybe when MLS finally gets to 28 teams, a 12 team playoff structure is suitable. But until then, there are way too many teams in the postseason.