MLS and USL: Fixing The Playoffs
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.