Analysis

Let's play three! Recalling the fun – and flaws – of MLS' original playoff format

As the debate rages on about MLS' playoff format, it's worth remembering what the league's postseasons used to entail.

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Will Major League Soccer stick with aggregate series leading to the MLS Cup final, or swap that for a single-elimination dash to the trophy? The league once did things a different way entirely.

MLS was conceived in the American sports model, the single-entity ownership structure aside, and that went for the playoffs, too. Upon launching in 1996, the league used best-of-three series leading to the single-game championship. It produced some of the most exciting playoff soccer in league annals, and too often in front of sparse crowds. MLS would need a few more years to find its stride.

Those three-game sets stuck around for seven years, as a best-of contests through 1999 and then as a first-to-five-points clash until aggregate series arrived for the conference semifinals in 2003, with single-game conference finals (until 2012) followed by MLS Cup.

Initially, it didn't matter how many goals a team scored. Win the first leg by 20 goals and lose the next two by one and you were done. And when the score was tied after 90 minutes, shootouts determined the game's winner. Only eight of the 24 series in this format went the distance, with none of the six in 1997 and just one in 1998 getting past two games. One series required a shootout to advance.

Things grew more heated after the shootout's demise following the '99 season. MLS introduced ties, following 10 minutes of sudden death, and that meant the postseason format needed to change. Now a club would need five points minimum – a win and two draws or better – to move on. If both teams finished with four, another extra time, this one 20 minutes long, would be played to solve the series.

This lasted for three years and ignited some of the best, if not the best, of postseason series, five of them decided in one stage of extra time or another.

Six of these series were real gems. Let's take a closer look:

1996

Western Conference semifinal: Kansas City defeats Dallas, 2-1

The Wizards and Burn had finished on even terms – 12-15 for 41 points – in the chase for second in the West after the LA Galaxy's sprint to a huge, early lead, and their playoff bow was just as tight.

Kansas City rallied from a late deficit to goals by Matt McKeon in the 79th minute and Preki in the 89th to pull out a 3-2 win in the opener at Arrowhead Stadium, in front of just 4,466 onlookers, and Dallas pulled out Game 2 at the Cotton Bowl, with Jason Kreis and Dante Washington tallying in a 2-1 victory.

Dallas, seeded higher based on goal difference, stayed home for the decisive clash, drawing just 9,800 to the Cotton Bowl, and it went ahead through Hugo Sanchez midway through the first half. Mark Chung pulled the Wizards even by halftime and Digital Takawira fired the Wizards ahead in the 62nd. Four minutes later, Gerell Elliott equalized for the home team.

After 90, it was still 2-2, so on to the shootout, in which shooters started 35 yards out and had five seconds to get off their attempt. Preki, Frank Klopas and Paul Wright converted for a 3-2 Wizards win in the tiebreaker, and then they were swept by LA in the Western final.

NEXT: Kansas City's road to their first MLS Cup title