With Decision Day in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look forward to the MLS Cup Playoffs. Oddly, they start on Wednesday, which is insane. Also, over half the league still gets in (even after two new teams were added in 2017). Also, the home-and-home series, aggregate goal totals and away goals are silly. Let’s talk through this mess, with a few simple solutions.
Games Should be on the Weekends
The MLS season is 34 games long and started waaaay back on March 3, 2017. It didn’t end until October 22, 2017. Over those seven and a half months no one seemed to be in such a hurry, but now the playoffs have arrived and the knockout round games are on Wednesday and Thursday.
That will leave half the teams with two days rest and half with three days. If that weren’t bad enough the Conference Semi-Finals start just three days later on Sunday and continue on Monday and Tuesday.
Why are we in such a hurry?!
Throughout the season there are stretches with no games. Some of that is obviously from FIFA breaks but it’s nonsense to jam all the playoff games together like this. I’d much rather see some Wednesday games earlier in the season to allow the playoffs to be spread out.
Give a full weeks rest (or at least wait until Saturday) and make your knockout round games a spectacle the following weekend. The games will be better due to the players being rested and more people will see them. Two games Saturday, two games on Sunday. Then the Conference Semi-Finals can start the following weekend with more time to hype and for the players to rest.
Two Legged Series Aren’t Working
There are so many things wrong with the two-legged home-and-home playoff series. Oh let me count the ways.
First, the lower seeded team gets a home game first. That allows situations like last year when all four lower seeds won the first game and set themselves up well for the away leg of the series. Of those four, only the higher seeded Colorado Rapids actually came from behind and won their series. That sounds weird to say even just a year later.
Now some clubs may want to host the second game since that’s the one that can go to extra time and penalties, so give them the choice. Right now it’s not working.
Second, the aggregate goal thing is confusing to American sports fans. If it was just the total of goals from two games I think that would be fine (we aren’t that bad at math) but it’s the adding in of away goals.
Ironically, weighting away goals so much, means teams may have incentive to sit back and play more defensively at home making for less exciting soccer. Instead, if aggregate goals must be a thing, remove the away goal rule. Whoever scores more wins. If it’s tied, we do extra time and then penalties. No more 3-3 ties that are somehow a win for one team.
Last, do we even need two game series? Winner takes all works well enough for MLS Cup. Not to mention the National Football League. Heck, even the lower division United Soccer League does single-elimination and it’s damn exciting to watch.
The good news is that there is a rumor the MLS Cup Playoffs will go to single elimination starting in 2018 or 2019.
Following on an old @cboehm tweet, I'm now also being told it's likely MLS will switch to a single-elimination playoff format in '18 or '19.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) October 23, 2017
Too Many Teams Get In
In 2017 there are 22 MLS teams and 12 of them are in the playoffs. That’s nearly 55 percent of all the teams getting in. That’s an improvement over 2016 when 12 of the then 20 teams (or 60 percent) got in. By comparison, here are the breakdowns of the rest of the four major American sports leagues.
- NFL: 12 of 32 — 37.5 percent
- MLB: 10 of 30 — 33 percent
- NBA: 16 of 30 — 53 percent
- NHL: 16 of 31 — 51 percent
So while MLS is trending in the right direction and it will presumably get better in 2018 with the addition of LAFC, it’s the worst of the Big Five leagues. While that would leave some of us saddened by the fact that our team is left out, so be it, they don’t deserve to be in.
No league should let in more than half of their teams (the NHL and NBA included). For MLS, that would mean 11 teams or less. 11 doesn’t work very well with math so just let the 10 best teams in (no matter the conference) and give a bye to the top two seeds. For past years, the dominate Western Conference would have benefited. But in 2017 the East would have looked good. Here would be the seeds if this were the case.
- #1 Toronto FC and #2 New York City FC would have byes
- #3 Chicago Fire v #10 Houston Dynamo
- #4 Atlanta United v #9 New York Red Bulls
- #5 Columbus Crew SC v #8 Vancouver Whitecaps
- #6 Portland Timbers v #7 Seattle Sounders
For those wondering, Sporting Kansas City were the 11th best team in the single table. Then after the first round, just reseed where the highest seed plays the lowest seed in a single elimination format with the higher seed hosting. It would make the fewer playoff games more exciting.
As I think more about that, 10 is probably too many as well. That would require teams #1 and #2 to have multiple byes, which seems like an advantage but could really leave them out of form against a team that’s just won two games. If we make it the top eight teams and do single elimination, that probably makes more sense.
In a few years once the league has grown to at least 24 teams (by 2020 or maybe even 2019) letting 12 in would make a bunch more sense. Honestly, even when it’s 28 teams, maybe only 12 should get in. Those last few spots will still be up for grabs on the final weekend most likely.
Of all these possible solutions, the single elimination format and moving games to the weekends seem like the most likely and easiest things to implement. There is probably too much money being made to take away playoff games.