MLS and USL: Fixing The Playoffs

Major League Soccer
Major League Soccer

I am an advocate of playoffs in American football. I do not believe the solutions often advocated by European oriented fans of balanced schedules, single table and no playoff competitions are practical or logical in North America.

Playoffs build a brand and build excitement. Mexican Football in particular, became more relevant and better supported at home after the Apertura/Clausura format including playoffs replaced the old traditional structure.

However, Red Bull’s run last season, LA’s run in 2005 and the current situation in the USL-1 playoffs have me concerned that the playoff format in MLS (and USL) favor lower seeded teams.

In the first round of this season’s USL-1 playoffs, two of three lower seeded teams advanced, by following a formula of scoring goals at home and then bunkering/counter attacking in the second leg away from home. Last night these two sides, Montreal and Vancouver again beat higher seeded teams at home and can be expected to employ a negative strategy in the second legs. When you add to this, Puerto Rico Islanders have played eight games in nineteen days going into the second leg; you realize Montreal in particular is in great shape despite being far less successful in the Regular Season than the Islanders.

Both MLS and USL need to scrap their current playoff formats. The initial MLS format in the late 90s which involved a best of three series and a NASL styled shootout as a tie-breaker. While this format was far from perfect, it was more reasonable than this format.

DC United, Supporters Shield winners in 2006 and 2007 were hurt badly by the MLS playoff system, which punished the higher seeded team. 2007, in particular is instructive. Forced to go to Chicago in the first leg for a nationally televised, locally hyped matchup, the red and black succumbed and then were unable (or perhaps unlucky) to not chase the series down in the second leg at RFK.

Last season, Houston’s elimination at the hands of Red Bull may have given MLS a nice boost in the nation’s largest media market, a place where the league is nearly invisible (despite having it’s HQ on 5th avenue), perhaps more due to a hostile and arrogant mainstream sporting press than anything else. But was Houston’s elimination truly fair?

Its one thing if MLS and USL awarded their titles based on the Regular Season. While both leagues have awards for the regular season point leaders (Supporters Shield, and Commissioners Cup), they award champions based on the playoffs. The Mexican system heavily favors the higher seeded team, even breaking ties after two legs in favor of the higher seeded team.

It is time for MLS and USL to do the same- either scrap home and home series, awarding all matches to the higher seeded team, or bringing back (in MLS’ case) the best of three series.

14 thoughts on “MLS and USL: Fixing The Playoffs”

  1. a better idea would be to introduce the away goal rule for the first round to give the away team an incentive to attack on the road.

    if anything i’d make the argument that the higher seeded teams play bunker ball during the first game on the road and then play the style that they’re used to in the 2nd leg at home.

    it wasnt until RBNY broke the script by winning the 2nd leg vs.Houston that caused MLS fans to go in an uproar.

  2. Scrap play offs and go to a tournament group stage followed by knock out. In group (4 teams in each group, 2 groups), play each team in group once,top seed plays all games at home, 2nd seed play 2 at home, 1 away, 3rd seed plays 1 at home, 2 away, 4th seed plays all away. Winners of the groups play for cup or top 2 in each group play in a knock out.

  3. The home and home series is perfect. My ideal setup would be higher seed gets the second game at home, if tied(aggregate) after the second game then go extra time and then penalties. MLS however does need to fix their seeding system. USL has it right, a single table is the best way to seed teams for the playoffs, as opposed to the current MLS system where NY can be “western” conference champions. In MLS the solution is very simple: single table, top 8 get in, home and home series all the way(including the final). Let the playoffs, USOC and CCL foster the rivalries, don’t force them with contrived division based schedules like the NFL does.

  4. The playoff system is fine as is. It is getting better now that there are more teams.

    The Houston’s elimination was completely fair. They were beat in their own house. This was one of the biggest upsets in American playoff sports history.

    NYRB,a team who had NEVER won in Houston, playing a team in Houston with the best defense in the league and has NEVER lost a playoff game in at home outscoring opponents 11-2. Yet despite this they whipped Houston in front of a 5th straight playoff sell-out crowd of 30,000+.
    Nobody Danny Cepero saved everything and the Dynamo put 3 balls off the post. No excuses for the loss.

  5. Since the Philadelphia Union is coming into MLS next year, perhaps I can suggest this.

    With both conferences having eight teams, we could theoretically have the regular season consist of 28 matches, with intraconference play only (no regular season East vs. West matchups) and four matches against other conference opponents, two home and two away. The team with the best record in each conference would then have a “play-off” in the MLS Cup championship match. The MLS Cup would be the only play-off match needed, pitting the best of the West vs. the best of the East. We can save travel costs, make the single table nutcases somewhat happy, and have play-offs at the same time (even though it would be one game, but it would be for all the marbles). I can see this working.

  6. Get rid of the home and home. Go straight to knockout, pk’s after 120 minutes. The home and home is only there so every team gets a home game. The first game is usually a snoozefest because nobody wants to make a mistake.

  7. Call me a euro snob, but I’m not a big fan of a regular season/postseason system for soccer. And when 50% of the league qualifies for the playoffs. I can’t help but feel like it devalues the regular season, and the other knockout competitions. Not to mention, it’s really screwy when it’s possible for a team to finish 2nd in the league not qualify for the CCL. Or for a team to finish 8th and qualify. Dramatic? Yes. Good? I’m not sure.

    BUT! If we are going to have a hypothetical discussion about the playoffs. Let’s have some fun! How bout this:

    -Separate the league into 4 divisions. Not by geography, but by random/rotating draw. So, every year your division has a different set of teams. This way, you can hopefully avoid having historically weak divisions (NFC North Anyone?).

    -Play a balanced/unbalanced season.

    -Top 2 teams from each group advance to a seeded playoffs. Team with best record plays the 8th best, 2nd vs 7th, and so on.

    -Same as now, play a home and away leg. With the the top team playing at home first.

    -As for the Championship game, I haven’t decided. Maybe hold it at a rotating location like the SuperBowl. Might hurt attendance though. Can’t imagine RBNY fans showing up to watch a Columbus-Denver final.

    Or you could just scrap the playoffs and go single-table 😉

  8. I like what the WPS did in their playoffs for their league. The lower seeds played more knockout games until they advanced to play the next higher seed. the highest seed was given a bye.

    The top 2 teams in MlS should have a bye directly into the conference championship game that they will host letting the lower seeds play until they meet them there.

  9. Although I used to not be a fan of the playoffs, it has grown on me. I say keep the home-home series until the finals on a neutral site. I think Kartik’s argument about bunkering down in the second game is just as feasible in the first leg. Home-home series is the fairest option out there imo, and this is why: The chances of the higher seed ,ie better team, advancing is greater the higher the amount of matches. Three would be ideal, but the problem is that would be too many games. Also, with three games one team could potentially have a longer rest (ie win in two), which would make the next round opponent who played three lopsided and less competitive. Plus, I like having ot and shootout possibilities b/c they don’t exist in the regular season.

  10. Kartik, I like that you’re a contrarian at heart and all, but I’m not sure if anyone should buy your contention that a system not *further* favoring higher-seeded teams is one that *punishes* them.

    Higher-seeded teams already have an advantage going in: they’re matched up with teams who are theoretically worse. That’s the luxury their table standing affords them (plus a Supporters Shield for the one at the top). Offering them a secondary advantage is a very American concept, and even that often results in regular upsets.

    The fact that a wild card can win it all is the POINT of including them in the playoffs – otherwise just declare the Supporters Shield winner the MLS champion. Then the best team would always win, problem solved.

    Home-and-home is a fair system. As glaring as the exceptions may seem to you, the best team usually wins.

  11. Playoffs are exciting period.
    Win or go home, as a league I will never watch again promotes.
    There are probably big reasons ( $$$$ ) to have a home and home, but single elimination takes away the arguement that the regular season doesn’t matter.
    I don’t agree with that arguement, by the way, ask the teams DC through NY if the regular season matters, but with single elimation playoffs, it would matter more.
    I am glad that the MLS Cup will NOT be at a neutral site this year….go Sounders !

  12. I want to add that one of the teams Kartik expected to “employ a negative strategy in the second leg” – Vancouver – scored three goals in Portland in an incredibly exciting game.

  13. First off,

    The “away goals rule” is the worst thing ever invented in the history of sport ever (even worse than the NHL’s current standings system). If an attacking strategy away becomes correct, the corollary is that playing overly defensive at home is also correct. That’s going to to wonders for the stadium experience. 3 goals each way is 3 goals each way, I don’t see how the site should matter. If it’s tied after both legs, there should always be extra time (and that’s why the higher seed should always have the advantage of hosting the second leg).

    I do like two-goal series in general, and think MLS should keep them. However, I agree with Rafael that WPS stumbled on something good with what I call “the ladder bracket” Basically the two lowest playoff teams play each other for the right to play the next highest, and so on up until they meet the top team in the championship match.

    To apply this format to MLS with 8 teams qualifying it would be

    Round 1
    Playoff Day 1 #8-#5, #7-#6
    Playoff Day 2 #5-#8, #6-#7
    Highest seed advancing becomes A
    Lowest seed advancing becomes B

    Then for all subsequent rounds the high seed hosts both legs
    Round 2
    Playoff Day 3 #4-A, #3-B
    Playoff Day 4 #4-A, #3-B
    Highest seed advancing becomes C
    Lowest seed advancing becomes D

    Playoff Day 5 #2-C, #1-D
    Playoff Day 6 #2-C, #1-D

    Playoff Day 7 Semifinal Winners, single match.

    The only downside to this is the amount of down time the top two seeds would have idle (probably two weeks). Otherwise I think it’s a format that rewards regular season play, yet provides very interesting playoff matchups, and provides 1 home match to the teams #5-8, and 2 home matches for the teams #1-#4.

  14. I have to disagree. The single table format and balanced schedules is a more efficient style. The playoffs can be kept if they are done right. I do not understand why the MLS has two conferences but don’t adhere to them. I would consider advocating 2 conferences if every year teams from one conference end up playing representing the opposing conference. For that reason alone, the conference idea must be scrapped. Playoffs can be done correctly if the MLS severely restricts the number from 8 to 4 teams. This would allow the teams to fight harder for a place, and thus increasing the level of play from the top teams in the league. There should also be a relegation system set up to punish teams that perform poorly. The expansion teams in the MLS are simply teams in the USL that have bought their promotion. Instead of this, the MLS should set up a promotion/relegation system with the USL 1 & 2. If there is a harsh penalty for poor performance, this would increase the level of play from all teams in the league. Having such a long playoff and no lower divisions with direct promotion/relegation links prevents the installation of a domestic cup. Set up similarly to Euro Leagues, the lower divisions play knock out rounds then after 4 or 5 rounds the top 8 MLS teams participate. This way the top 8 teams can still vie for a title.

    Setting up a single table format would allow for ease of selection for the Super Liga, CONCACAF Champions League, the domestic cup, and relegation.

    I have written to the commissioner and president of MLS many times. I have not received any response and am looking to petition. Email me at if you are interested.

    Bottom line is we have developed some of the best players in the world, but have almost none sticking around. A stronger and more competitive league will attract up and coming stars, rather than over the hill ones not quite ready to retire…Beckham, Henry, and possibly Raul.

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