Just weeks before the beginning of the season, MLS yesterday finally released its playoff format for the 2011 season. As dreaded, it will include 10 of the 18 MLS teams, and officials acknowledged the number could change as more teams join MLS. As for the current structure, the playoffs will go as such:
- The top three finishers in each conference will qualify for the playoffs.
- The four teams outside the top three in each conference who have the best records will qualify for the playoffs as wild cards. This is regardless of conference affiliation.
- In the first round, the wild card with the best record will take on the wild card with the worst, and the other two will face off in the second first round matchup. The format is single game at the higher seed’s home field.
- The conference semifinals will pit the remaining wild card team with the lowest record with the Supporter’s Shield winner. The other wild card will face the top seed in the other conference, while the second and third seeds in each conference will play. The semifinals will be a home-and-home series.
- The winners of the semifinals will face each other in a game at the highest remaining seed’s home field. The winners of each conference final will face off in the MLS Cup.
- No dates have been anounced for the playoffs.
So if the current playoff structure were in place last season, Seattle would have hosted Chicago and Colorado would have hosted San Jose in the wild card round. Assuming the top seeds would have won (for the sake of the example), Seattle would have faced Los Angeles in the Western Conference semifinals (while Real Salt Lake and Dallas would have faced off) and Colorado would have played New York in the Eastern Conference semifinals (while Columbus would have played Kansas City).
My initial thought upon seeing the bracket is that this is the best MLS could have done if wedded to the idea of a 10 team playoff. The structure rewards success in the regular season by having the teams with the best records face opponents who had played more recently. I think having the conference semifinals as home-and-home with the other rounds are single games is very odd, and I think MLS should just go to single matches for the playoffs, although that would hurt some teams’ gates.
The big winner in this format however are the conferences. If you were a single-table proponent the format shows that at least for the near future MLS has no plans to deviate from the conference structure. In fact, playing well within your conference is a reward, as it allows you to compare yourself just with the other nine teams in your conference for the playoff race, instead of last season when you had to do well not only in-conference but in a combined table to qualify for the playoffs.
The other big winner in the short term is the Eastern Conference. This playoff structure allows a pretty good team a good chance to make a run at the MLS Cup. It is universally acknowledged that New York is the heavy favorite to win the East, but take a team like Philadelphia. The Union have good enough talent to be one of the better teams in the East this season, but still have enough glaring holes that, if they were in the West, they would probably finish outside the top four. In this playoff structure, they have a good shot at the two seed in the East, where they can play another pretty good Eastern Conference team. If they win, they move on to face New York most likely, not an easy task. But New York could be facing a team like Seattle in the semifinals and have a better chance of being upset. If Philadelphia wins the conference final, they are one more win away from an MLS Cup. Can’t happen? How is that path different than Colorado’s last year?