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The MLS Cup Playoffs are Still Broken

Four problems with four rather simple solutions.

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

With the playoffs less than a week away, let’s revisit why the MLS Cup Playoffs are broken and see if we can’t come up with some solutions.

Playoffs Should Still be on the Weekend

It’s gotten better than last year, but the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs are scheduled to start on Halloween. That’s a Wednesday, with games also being played the following Thursday. That’s the Knockout Round of the playoffs, being played three for four days after the regular season ends. The season started March 3rd. It will end on October 28th. That’s nearly eight months, then they are playing the first four games just days later. Can you imagine the NFL putting their first round mid-week?

I’ve seen it argued that’s the reason to fight for first or second, so that you’ll get the bye and not have to play until Sunday. I wonder if people will still feel that way if Sporting Kansas City lose on Sunday to Los Angeles Football Club and slip from 1st to what could easily be 4th (if FC Dallas beats the Colorado Rapids and the Seattle Sounders beat the San Jose Earthquakes).

Add to that, even if your team plays on Thursday, they will play again on Sunday. Just two days “off” in between. These aren’t the only weekday games either, the second leg of the Conference Finals are also on a Thursday with a wide open weekend sitting empty just days later. The playoffs are prestigious but the league is in such a hurry. Oh, except they’re not.

The League Must Work around the International Break

Right in the middle of the playoffs FIFA has an international break. After the November 11th Conference Semifinals leg two, there is a break until November 25th. Two lost weeks (or one weekend) right in the middle of the freaking playoffs. Because of that, the playoffs drag on and a good chunk of fans (especially the ones with eliminated teams) lose interest or simply forget it's happening. The issue is, with two-legged series all through the Conference Semifinals and Finals, there are two extra games that extend the playoffs.

So how does one fix that situation? Well, the MLS regular season is likely just a bit too long. The league doesn’t play a perfectly balanced season table and as more teams continue to come into the league there won’t even be a chance to play the teams in your conference in a home and away series. So if the league ended even two weeks earlier, October 14th this year, the playoffs could have started on October 21st for the knockout round. Then the Conference Semifinals on the 28th, the Conference Finals on November 4th and MLS Cup on November 11th.

That also requires the elimination of two-legged series (or to put games mid-week). I’m 100% down with eliminating the two-legged series. It hinders any advantage given to the #1 or #2 seed for a long season of work. There was reportedly a proposed deal to eliminate two-legged series in favor of elimination round games (it works in the first round and final round, not to mention the NFL, right?) but it hasn’t come to pass, possibly because hosting an MLS Cup Playoff game is reportedly worth $1 million.

That said, it seems infinitely more exciting to play a single elimination game and it gives the higher seeded team the advantage of hosting. And if the season ended a month early, there would actually be time to miss MLS. As it is, it ends in early December, the SuperDraft is in January and preseason starts in February. It basically has no break. It’d likely be good for the players to get some rest.

Away Goals and the Home and Home Series

If we can’t change the schedule, at least get rid of away goals. I know that around much of the world the away goals rule is in effect. I know MLS makes up their own rules and a lot of soccer football purists hate it. The thing is, it’s not unprecedented. Liga MX uses a different variant of the rules. But even if everyone used it, I’ll explain why it’s terrible.

The away goals rule actually encourages the home team to play conservatively. If you are a team, like Sporting KC, who play on the front foot, push your fullbacks forward and just generally take chances to create offense, you are susceptible to counters. That means the smarter thing to do is to play more defensively and less attractive soccer, even in front of your home fans.

Some would argue the inverse and say it encourages the road team to come out of their shell because if they don’t score on the road and their opponent does it becomes that much harder to overcome the deficit. In last year’s playoffs alone there were three nil-nil games in the first-half of two-legged series. That’s half the games bunkering hard, instead of going for the away goal.

Here is where MLS screws it all up though. They allow the lower seeded team to host the first game. They essentially give home field advantage to the team that did the worst. If that team can come out and get ahead by a decent margin it’s hard for the other team to recover. Since 2011, the lower seeded team has won eight of 14 Conference Finals. It’s not statistically significant, but if you drop out 2017, it’s eight of 12. In 2016 alone, of the six two-legged series (both Conference Semifinals and Finals), the lower seed advanced five times.

If the league insists on keeping two-legged series and the away goals rule, they could at least let the higher seed choose to host the first game.

Number of Playoff Teams

Finally MLS is getting this down to a reasonable number. Just two seasons ago, 60 percent of all MLS teams made the playoffs. With the addition of LAFC bringing the league to 23 teams, now just 52% of the teams get in. With FC Cincinnati set to join in 2019, assuming the number of playoffs team stay the same, that’ll get MLS to 50%. A very reasonable number, though likely still just a tad high, though I’d definitely say this isn’t what’s wrong (anymore). Here are how the other four major American sports compare.

  • 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
What do you think of the suggestions? What would you do if someone fired Don Garber and hired you as MLS Commissioner? Let us know in the comments.