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MLS Cup Playoffs format is flawed, but easily fixable

USA TODAY Sports

If you have to have a postseason, at least make sure you do it right. Steve Davis on why MLS' 12-team format is wrong, and how to solve it:

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A playoff structure is built into Major League Soccer’s DNA. It always will be. League architects made that clear from the start, and longtime commissioner Don Garber has reliably remained on message: A robust postseason is an important staple of American sports, so playoffs will be an essential element of Major League Soccer’s bedrock framework.

Which is totally reasonable. But it’s also fair to expect MLS to get the postseason exercise right. Not just “mostly right,” or “pretty close” -- the league needs to nail this sucker.

There will always be a subset of high-minded supporters who believe all versions of the game must conform to the global way. That means a single table, with the club of the top record bequeathed the champagne spray and victory parade. All the more reason for MLS to make extra sure that its playoff architecture is on the money, hitting the sweet spot competitively and delivering the biggest bang for the buck in fan experience.

None of this is to say MLS Cup Playoffs, which begin this week, are “wrong.”  But the postseason chase does remain flawed in size and format. Let’s call it an ongoing work in progress.

Think of it this way: Pretty much everything about an entire 8-month regular season is about the playoffs. It’s about making the playoffs. About the excitement of the playoff race. About positioning for the playoffs and the white knuckle October contests that punctuate it all. Players and coaches yap for months about “being right for the playoffs.”

So if everyone in the league draws a big red circle around this thing and spends the year frantically pointing at it, then the postseason really should be something close to perfect. It’s on MLS executives to keep twisting and tweaking until they absolutely nail it, and they haven’t yet.

Too many teams

“If you’re in the dance, you have a chance.” That’s the punchy way ESPN analyst Alejandro Moreno said it Sunday, when all things “playoff” fell into focus. It does have a swell ring to it. And it’s true, too!

But should it be?

No. There are too many teams. There are 12 this year, which is 60 percent of the league. MLS owners have long favored a larger number of qualifiers (there was a seriously absurd time when 8 of 10 teams qualified) because it keeps a greater number of clubs relevant for a longer period of time, and because the home stretch is a more exciting, foam-finger-waving time for more clubs. That part makes some sense.

But 21 years in, the thinking needs some updating. Shouldn’t MLS want to sell all the matches as important – not just the September and October dates?

The law of unintended consequence is hard at work here; the league’s bloated field marginalizes so much of the entire exercise. Seattle Sounders FC reminded us so in 2016. Limping along in late July with six wins in 20 matches, the Sounders were next to last in the West. That’s a full five months into the regular season.

Now? With Nicolas Lodeiro on the rampage and confidence to spare, you’d have to like Seattle’s chances as much as anyone’s to emerge out of the West and advance to MLS Cup. So clearly almost nothing that happened around CenturyLink Field in March, April, May, June and July mattered. Try to square that.

Playoff positioning certainly matters; there is mounting evidence that home-field advantage and avoiding the early elimination round is helpful in the big chase. At the same time, just allowing teams to back their way into the playoffs and have a chance in the dance chips away at regular-season relevance. It devalues what a team like FC Dallas does over the course of seven-plus months to win the Supporters’ Shield.

Quick turnarounds

If MLS leaders insist on a bloated playoff field, they certainly should optimize the opportunity factor. That starts here: Don’t eliminate four teams mere hours after they qualify!

Think about this: teams fight for almost eight months to qualify – and then one-third of the playoff field has been eliminated 96 hours later. The league’s final regular-season games were Sunday. Two teams get kicked out Wednesday. Two more on Thursday.

What’s worse: Teams that prevail in that fast-arriving, elimination match must turn right around and host a playoff match that weekend, and that is seriously problematic for all sales and marketing elements. Unless clubs are blessed with the kind of season ticket numbers seen only in two or three markets, selling two home matches three or four days apart on short notice is insane – and yet that’s what this format demands.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It's a tall order for D.C. United to sell a home game on short notice. (Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

So a club’s chance to maximize playoff revenue gets chopped short. This is especially troublesome when you consider how many NBA and NHL clubs enjoy the playoffs as a "bonus round” on revenue. (And if you need any reminders of how critical revenue is to professional soccer, see the current trouble the NASL is in.)

Beyond selling seats, the current format restricts time to build local buzz. Local buzz – coffee shop talk, flags on cars, sports talk radio segments, all that kind of stuff – helps create the lasting moments that tell a club’s story.

The solutions aren’t that difficult

Playing the long game, MLS would be smarter to reduce the playoff field. How about eight! Eight is a nice, round number. It would immediately eliminate some of the issues, since it would pinch off those early elimination matches. Beyond that, it would create a “leveling” effect to the entire format.

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Eastern Conference

Western Conference

Start explaining the MLS playoffs to a sporty friend – someone who isn’t a big soccer supporter but is open to learning more about the game – and watch them go cross-eyed. “OK, first there’s one game. Then there’s a two-game series, they call it ‘home-and-away.’ See, it’s a two-game aggregate goals series. That just means total goals. … Then two more games, but this year that’s after an international break. But never mind that. Then it’s back to one game for the championship. Yeah, that’s it. Oh! And this year, Philadelphia or Real Salt Lake might win it all. Except that they haven’t won a game since, like, Labor Day.”

Mostly, shrinking the field of qualifiers would instantly add greater relevance to the entire season. Matches in spring and early summer would actually matter, and wouldn’t that be a hoot!

But if we’re honest, reducing the size of the playoff field is probably trying to put ketchup back in the bottle, so we’ll begrudgingly move on with the assumption that it’s 12 teams, minimum.

At least give them a week after the regular season to build sales and let the buzz brew. Adding one more mid-week round of matches in the regular season would allow for doing this without extending the already long March-to-December window.

Is that really so problematic? MLS loves its branding, so make it “Rivalry Wednesday” or something like that. Some MLS clubs don’t like mid-week dates because they are tough on the gate. But the alternative, of course, is a set of important, high-profile mid-week playoff matches. See, that makes no sense.  

Is Garber struggling to deal with it?

A bigger issue with the playoffs probably looms: MLS leaders are likely to consider adding even more teams as MLS grows to 22 next year and, soon, 24 clubs. Again, that’s been the MLS way, unfortunately. As the league expanded steadily over the last decade, the board of directors added playoff teams in a parallel path, unfortunately.

I spoke recently to Garber about this, and the MLS commissioner seemed a little cagey with his answer. It could have just been me, but I got the impression that there was some division on this one. He said he likes the current formula, but seemed to leave the door ajar for ongoing playoff field expansion. Which likely means some owners will push for it.

He also said, “We have to make our playoffs more valuable to our fans and to our teams.” I honestly didn’t know what to make of that one; when I pressed Garber a bit on the point, he talked about committees and “lots of stuff on our plate” right now and how it wasn’t something MLS had to address in the short-term.

He’s right. But that time is not far away. And in the meantime, the next set of imperfect playoffs, with its unbalanced rhythm and its sub-.500 teams, is set to start on Wednesday.

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Steve Davis’ column, America’s Game, appears on FourFourTwo USA each week. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.

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