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 Playoff Format

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.