The Playoff Format

What should the changes be?

The MLS Cup playoff format.

It’s likely that if you’re a fan of the Fire or the Kansas
City Wizards, you may not be too high on the current setup. The same could be
said of Galaxy or Real Salt Lake supporters, though the latter have more to
gripe about.

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber addressed some
of the controversy at halftime of last Thursday’s playoff opener between
Columbus and Colorado, saying that the league was looking at changing the
playoff format as it grows.

The system in its current format is unintentionally
punishing the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake for finishing first and second in
the league, as the bottom two sides in the West (Colorado and San Jose) moved
over to the Eastern Conference to fill out their playoff bracket. It’s an
epidemic we’ve seen every year since the league adopted the current format –
New York moving to the West in 2008, Real Salt Lake to the East in 2009 – both
eventually ending up their opposite conference championships.

While that may be a good omen for the Rapids and
Earthquakes, it’s more than unfortunate this year for RSL and the Galaxy.

Old Format and Single Table…? (No! Here’s why…)

If MLS followed the old and somewhat more traditional
American method of determining it’s playoff teams, both the Wizards and Fire
would still be playing right now as the third and fourth teams in the Eastern
Conference. They do not and it’s right that two teams with higher point totals,
Colorado and San Jose (46), qualified ahead of Kansas City (39) and the Fire
(36).

Going forward, it’s only right if the league continues to
play a balanced schedule.

With two more teams in Portland and Vancouver entering MLS
next season, the league has already expanded its schedule from 30 to 34 games
to ensure every team continues to play each other equally. This drives those
that clamor for a single table crazy.

That brings me to a good point. So often when one mentions
the idea of the single table in MLS, the argument gets lost between those that
want to see it complimented by playoffs and those that want to see the league
schedule become the sole determinant of the league championship. Defenders of
the other idea also generally want to see promotion and relegation implemented
in the American soccer landscape.

Neither is going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of a good relegation
battle as much as the next guy, but those that suggest it don’t understand the
landscape of American soccer or how detrimental the idea would be.

Having cut my teeth working in this country’s lower leagues,
I’m familiar with great gap between Division 2 and Major League Soccer. It’s
big -- something that needs to be planned in advance and brought along the
right way. Teams at that level just aren’t ready to make the jump, whether it
be talent wise, financially, operationally. This is true even more as
Vancouver, Portland and Montreal – the only three current Division 2 teams that
could survive such a jump – will be MLS teams very soon.

They planned ahead though.

Flip the token. Given the amount of investment MLS
Owner/Operators are pumping into teams, it would be just as detrimental to a
club to have to suffer through a season in Division 2 after a poor year.

Would DC United, with all their stadium woes survive a year
having to play a season against the Miami FC’s and Carolina Railhawks of the
world? What about Chivas USA or expansion Philadelphia, who would be sent to
Division 2 after their third from bottom finish in their inaugural season…

We’re just not there yet and by the way, that’s alright.

Taking into account that it’s not going to happen, this is
all by way of saying a single league table without playoffs to determine the
league winner would make things pretty dull for most of the clubs by July or
August.

The Fire were never going to finish top of the league this
year, but they stayed in the playoff race for most of the season, keeping
things interesting and having something to play for.  Though not a great game, imagine how dull the
Fire-Union match on September 11 would have been if the club didn’t still have
a shot at the playoffs?

Beyond all of that, so what if most of the leagues around
the world don’t do playoffs? We do. They provide drama, they make things more
entertaining. The MLS Cup playoffs provide one of the most compelling
postseasons in North American sport. Lets not forsake the playoffs to appease
some European cross-section that won’t be obliged to watch either way.

Keep the playoffs.  

A single table with the top eight (or more) teams qualifying
to the postseason makes sense right now and I think many question why
Commissioner Garber and the league so adamantly stick to a conference system.

One idea…

The balanced schedule and in turn, a sensible single table
that would go along with it couldn’t continue (at least fairly) as the league
keeps growing. It’s hard to believe once MLS hits 20 teams (and beyond) that
they’ll be able to keep a balanced schedule – they’d have to cram four more
games into an already crowded schedule, dealing with weather concerns in
northern cities at the beginning and end of every season.

When you consider this, keeping the conference setup makes
much more sense. If they went single table right now, they’d eventually have to
revert back to the current format in a few years.

As Don Garber and assumingly the MLS Competition Committee
examine the league’s playoff format going forward – if teams aren’t playing
each other equally and we’re still broken up into conferences, an equal number
of teams from the East and West need to make the playoffs.

More than that, as the league grows, you could make the
argument that the league might benefit from an expansion of postseason teams
from eight to 10 or 12. This isn’t necessarily popular among all, but it would
keep more teams playing for something longer and as it becomes more difficult
to qualify for the postseason, that would be important.

Once the league hits 20 teams, in my ideal MLS world, the
playoffs would look more like this. Twelve teams making it – six from each
conference.

Expand the best part of the year by allowing more teams in –
give two teams in each conference a first-round bye… Don is after all a former
NFL guy, he knows about it. This format would further incentivize teams to try
to finish top of their conference to earn a first round bye and a rest while
their eventual opponents are battling it out the week before… It also gives
those hosts more time to sell tickets to playoff games…

Either way, I’m excited to see what’s in store on the MLS
playoff front. The impending changes to the postseason format are one of the
most important parts of the league’s growth going forward.

What do you think?

 Jeff
Crandall
is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter
@JefeCrandall.