The MLS Cup playoff format could potentially be significantly altered, as early as the 2023 season, according to a report. The latest idea being floated by the league is a best-of-three series for the first round of MLS Cup Playoffs.
This proposal now supersedes a previously reported “World Cup style” format that would have featured a group stage component. The league is tinkering with the format, supposedly at least in part, to increase the total inventory of playoff matches from 13 up to around 30. Not for competitive reasons – but in an effort to please it’s new media rights partner Apple TV in the first year of a 10-year deal.
Incredibly, this would be the seventh major iteration of the MLS playoff format since the league began in 1996. But it wouldn’t be the first time it has used a best-of-three element. The first seven seasons, from 1996-2002, used a three-game series in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
As you can see below, in every MLS season, at least 50% of the teams in the league qualified for the postseason. MLS, of course, is somewhat of an outlier in world soccer when it comes to crowning their league champion. Most leagues award the title to the team with the most points at the end of the season. But MLS, among a handful of other leagues (notably Liga MX and their twice-a-year Liguilla), award top honors to the winner of a postseason tournament.
History of the MLS playoff format
|# of teams qualified
|% of league qualified
|# of rounds
|Total playoff matches
|Best of 3 series for 1st 2 rounds, 1st team to 5 points advanced
|2 game aggregate series for 1st round (Conference Semis)
|Single elimination “Wild Card”/play-in round added
|Conference Finals become 2 leg aggregate series
|Single elimination play-in round expanded
|Entire tournament single elimination, top team in each conference gets a bye to round 2
|Best of 3 1st round, single elimination thereafter
There’s an argument to be had in favor of a playoff system. It theoretically keeps more fans and media interested for more teams later into a season. It avoids lame duck matchdays after a team clinches the title with several weeks left to go. And it supplies, presumably, premium matches to broadcasters and sponsors.
But at a certain point, it really lessens the value of the regular season and dilutes the competition. Plus, the soccer ecosystem has additional layers other sports that utilize playoffs to crown a champion don’t.
Emulating other sports to a fault
MLS has no doubt always wanted to make the “Big 4” American team sports leagues the “Big 5.” To be part of the big deal club. And to that end they (and their predecessors the NASL) decided to modify the standard way soccer works to suit American tastes. Playoffs are one of those modifications.
Other American sports have large playoff fields and fans eat it up. All of MLS’s pro sports neighbors feature unbalanced regular season schedules. And for the postseason, MLB now has 40% of it’s teams qualify (only recently expanded), the NFL 44%, NHL 50%, and the NBA 67% (including play-in rounds). But all of those sports, except the NFL, utilize grueling 7-game series for the majority of their playoff rounds, somewhat legitimizing the results and (usually) preventing fluke champions. This format, however, is impractical for soccer as longer rest periods between games is generally required.
MLS is heading into its 28th season, trying to cement itself as a serious league on the world stage. But it’s still tinkering with the way the world’s game works. The hockey shootouts, countdown clock and other gimmicks are gone. But every so often proposals like this make it feel like it’s the 90s all over again.
MLS has grown leaps and bounds. It has 29 teams. Unlike other North American sports, MLS teams offer their fans more than one competition to follow throughout the year. The new expanded Leagues Cup brings tons of eyeballs in the summer as every MLS team takes on Liga MX sides. More teams will be participating in the revamped CONCACAF Champions League. And of course there is the US Open Cup.
So the question must be asked – does the league even really need playoffs at all anymore?
A better way forward?
With the aforementioned Leagues Cup, CCL and US Open Cup, there are plenty of high-stakes games to go around. There really isn’t a need for a playoff tournament on top of all that, certainly not one that features more than half the league.
Every single team already has qualification to the Open Cup and Leagues Cup. Every team also has a shot to qualify for one of the minimum of five (and as many as ten) CCL spots MLS will have moving forward. If the regular season isn’t going great, do teams really need a fourth chance at glory, to finish 16th in the league, to keep things interesting?
If the league wants (or needs) to increase the value of games for its media partners, it can do so without watering down the competition. Increasing quality, not quantity, is the key to a compelling product. Mediocre mid-table teams barely qualifying for a postseason that will almost inevitably be eliminated from is an exercise in conjuring drama where there really isn’t any. Cinderella runs by minnows is what the Open Cup should be for, not awarding a league title.
MLS playoff changes: So many possibilities
The current league setup is 29 teams, divided into two conferences, playing an unbalanced 34-game regular season schedule. Every team in the league won’t play every other team at least once. This is what happens when you start to go over the global standard of 18-24 teams in a single league. But all told you’ve got a total of over 500 matches worth of content throughout the MLS season alone. Will a handful of extra playoff games really add much to the experience?
Mind you, these playoff games will largely be only relevant to fans of the teams playing in them. Despite the gains MLS has made, many neutrals still won’t tune in to watch even the MLS Cup Final, let alone a first round game one between KC and Real Salt Lake (airing not on TV, but on the Apple dedicated streaming platform, remember).
Format of MLS Playoffs need to be improved
But what if we reduced the number of playoff teams and overall games, yet increased the number of “big ticket” games overall throughout the season? Let’s assume MLS adds an inevitable 30th team. You still have two conferences, 15 teams each. You could play entirely intra-conference, balanced schedules for 28 games per team each regular season. Take the top four teams from each conference for the MLS Cup Playoffs. Make MLS Cup a single elimination, three-round contest, consisting of seven total games (four in the quarterfinals, two in the semis, and one final).
The importance of each regular season game would vastly increase if you reduced the number of teams that qualified for MLS Cup. And you’re not losing much. The six additional games on the current MLS schedule are against less than half of the opposite conference, and half of those games are away, so fans aren’t exactly losing too many opportunities to see certain teams.
Qualification to the postseason, in addition to being harder, would be fairer, as each team within each conference would play the exact same opponents. No “easy draws” for certain teams depending on who their inter-conference games are against. The two conferences would functionally be two independent leagues that come together to crown a national champion at the end via MLS Cup (not unlike MLB used to be before AL-NL interleague play began in 1997).
In a calendar with frequent international breaks, the bigger Leagues Cup and CCL, plus US Open Cup, reducing the total number of league games would surely be welcomed by coaches and training staffs. The compartmentalization of the tables would eliminate cross-continental travel within the league, and heighten the importance of regional rivalries.
A short, sweet postseason would still satisfy the American sports fan’s (and executive’s) taste for playoffs, but reward only the truly worthy teams with entry. A balanced regular season schedule for every team would satisfy the soccer traditionalist, and further legitimize qualification for playoffs as well as the CCL.
On the flip side, if you want to give more teams and fans and suits more playoff action, why stop at 16 teams? Why not let the entire league in? Decouple MLS Cup from the regular season almost entirely and count it as a separate competition. Seed the teams based on record, give the top two a bye to round two, and have one big knockout cup. That would be just about as legitimate as a 16-team tournament.
Time for smarter decisions
But either way, the key is shifting the mindset of American sports/soccer fans and TV/streaming executives. At present in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL there is only one trophy that matters. Yes, they hand out regular season champion and division/conference hardware, but those are largely irrelevant. However for an MLS team there are at present five (six if you count the Club World Cup) independently important trophies to chase after each year – four of them earning a spot in the fifth (and that one earning a spot in the sixth).
Putting teams more than halfway down the table against each other in three-game playoff series isn’t some innovative way to move the needle. It’s an admission of failure in promoting the solid – and unique – sports product they’re already selling.
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