During the 2010 MLS Cup game, Commissioner Don Garber went on the ESPN halftime show to answer some questions about the state of the league. The major issue circulating in the media was the playoff structure – a team from Colorado had just been named the Eastern Conference champion and, with two more teams entering the league next year, fewer than half of the teams playing in MLS would qualify for the playoffs under the existing format. Garber announced that MLS would change the playoff system for the upcoming year to reflect the criticism coming from U.S. soccer fans and to ensure what had happened during the 2010 playoffs (i.e., a West Coast team winning the Eastern Conference) would not happen again.
In February, the playoff plan was finally announced. The top three finishers in each conference would get into the playoffs as seeded teams, while the four non-seeded teams with the highest number of points would make the wildcard round. After those four teams played each other, they would become the fourth seeds in each conference and the playoffs would proceed as 1 v. 4 and 2 v. 3 in each conference, with at most one of the four teams coming from outside the conference. The chances of a Colorado-type run became that much harder, according to MLS’s thinking, but it did require that the number of teams making the playoffs to exceed 50%.
The decision was roundly criticized, including on this website. What kind of league has over half of its teams make the playoffs? Was MLS serious, or a CYO league? And what happens if a strong team like Real Salt Lake is one of the wild cards and gets placed in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Then it is 2009 all over again.
However, with mere weeks left in the regular season, the new playoff structure is looking quite brilliant. As it stands, there are two Eastern and two Western conference teams in the wild card if the season ended today. Of course that is faulty analysis, as the teams have yet to play the same number of games. However, the reality is that almost every fan base has a reason to root hard for its team in the closing weeks. Realistically Vancouver is not in the playoff race but mathematically they are only eleven points (or four victories) back from the final playoff spot, with eight games to play. More realistically, teams like DC United, Portland, and Chivas USA are definitely in the playoff race despite the late stage of the season. That means 13 of 18 teams are in the playoff race and can certainly tell their fans they have a shot at postseason play. Compare this to Major League Baseball, where at roughly the same point in the schedule about 15 of the thirty teams are arguably in the playoff race, although the actual number of real competitors is less. New York Mets fans have had no reason to see their team play since June.
This is especially beneficial to the weaker Eastern Conference. In a single table, first-place Columbus would sit fifth and second-place Kansas City would be sixth. Instead, both are sitting in prime position to make the playoffs. The Chicago Fire, a team that has been mired around last place for most of the season and is the record-holder for most MLS draws, can get hot over the next six weeks and play their way into a playoff berth; that’s a pretty good reason to remain interested in your team if you’re a fan. Even a team like DC United now has a crowd draw; they can with a straight face tell fans that the upcoming home games against Chivas USA and Portland are critical to make the playoffs.
The Western Conference race is even more intriguing, as playoff positioning is critical in the conference. As it stands, Seattle and Dallas would face off in the Western Conference semifinals; as the season progresses does it make more sense for Dallas if it is out of the Supporter’s Shield race to drop into fourth in the conference and enter the wild card round, where you could play a Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew, for example, instead of a Seattle Sounders? In addition, teams like Colorado and Real Salt Lake, who have struggled this year but are arguably among the most talented in the league, still have a chance to qualify as wild cards if they stumble down the stretch and have a chance to prove themselves in the playoffs.
In short, I think the excitement of an expanded playoff race may force us to rethink the stupidity of a ten-team playoff race. Maybe, just maybe, MLS knew what it was doing.