Why MLS is considering a playoff overhaul, and why it's unlikely to happen

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs lose momentum at FIFA's November window, but small clubs aren't happy with the proposed solution.

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MLS is discussing potential changes to its playoff format for 2018 and beyond, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the talks.  

In the current system, six teams from each conference qualify for the postseason. The third- through sixth-seeds begin the playoffs days after the end of the regular season in a single-elimination knockout round. The winners advance to take on the top-two seeds in two-legged conference semifinals. The league then takes a two-week break to accommodate the November FIFA window before concluding the postseason with two-legged conference championships and the MLS Cup final.

According to the sources, the league is in the process of vetting several proposals that would tweak that format. The proposals are being made amid concerns the current playoff format drags on too long and loses momentum in the later rounds.

The playoff qualification process wouldn’t change under any of the proposals, but the league is discussing at least one option that would dramatically shorten the postseason. The proposal would eliminate two-legged series and make every round a one-game series hosted by the higher seed.

Under the proposal, the regular season would run an extra 10 days or so until the November FIFA break. The league would then pause for the international window and start the playoffs after it shuts. The entire postseason, which will run from Oct. 25-Dec. 9 this year, would be completed in roughly three weeks, the sources said.  

The sources found the proposal attractive for several reasons. There’s a feeling around the league that the playoffs lose steam during the FIFA break, with the exciting, hectic feeling of the knockout round and conference semifinals evaporating during the international window. Waiting until after the FIFA window to start the playoffs and completing the postseason without a lengthy stoppage would largely eliminate those concerns.

The proposal would also add to the importance of the regular season. In the current format, the higher seeds don’t have a tremendous advantage in the conference semifinals or conference championships. That’s particularly true in the conference championships, when both participants are well rested and are guaranteed a home game. Since the league first adopted a knockout round in the 2011 playoffs, lower seeds have won eight of 12 conference championship series’. Making the conference championships one-off contests would likely skew that record back towards the higher seeds, further rewarding good regular season performances.

While it’d ease concerns about losing buzz and would add importance to the regular season, the sources don’t expect the proposal to pass. The main reason? Finances. The sources said that one home playoff match means about an extra $1 million in revenue for the hosting club. That’s a significant sum for many MLS teams. Taking away playoff games would be taking that money out of owners’ pockets.

The sources also raised concerns that the proposed format would widen the gap between MLS’ haves and have-nots. On balance, it’d be positive for higher-spending teams like Toronto, Seattle and New York City that can realistically expect to finish near the top of the standings on a yearly basis. For teams who usually find themselves competing for the third- through sixth-seeds, however, it’d make the path to MLS Cup more difficult. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the league, at large, but it would cause plenty of clubs to push back against the measure.

The postseason is the most important part of MLS’ season, but it’s hampered by the November FIFA window. The international break is a tough workaround for many reasons, but the talks about a potential tweak to the playoff format indicate the league is looking to get around it. Regardless of whether the proposal moves forward, the fact that MLS is discussing changes is a positive in itself.

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