Playoffs? Are You Kidding Me? PLAYOFFS?!?

playoffs

The first round of MLS playoffs (aka MLS Conference Semi-finals) always spurs heated discussion about its playoff format as well as the League’s two conference structure.

Let’s take an overview of various playoff format options and League structures for Major League Soccer.  There should be three objectives to a playoff format and League Structure:

1) Crown a worthy champion

2) Entertain the fans

3) Maximize revenue for the teams and League

No matter what playoff format is used or what tweaks are made to improve it, a percentage of fans will criticize it and offer other imperfect solutions.  Most of their criticisms will be based on addressing objectives one and two, as objective three is rarely at the top of fans’ minds.

While there are exceptions to the rule, playoff attendance is traditionally lower in MLS than regular season attendance.  The main reason for this is the lack of time to promote the games and organize group sales, which form the backbone for many teams’ regular season attendance.

For most of MLS’ history the playoff format has been pretty straight forward, but there are other options.  Take a look at the options described below, then let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

1)  TRADITIONAL AMERICAN PLAYOFFS

Some version of the League’s eight top teams in the regular season qualify for the post-season championship and participate in some euphemism for quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final.  The first round has been either best of two or best of three games.  The semi-finals were two games in the early years, but have been a single game since 2003.  MLS Cup has always been a single match in a neutral site…except for 2002 when the Revs lost at home to Los Angeles.

The justified complaints in the early years surrounded the extremely high percentage of teams that qualified, which rendered the regular season nearly meaningless.  Eighty percent of the teams qualified in the years with ten teams and 67% in the years with  twelve teams.  Expansion has finally made qualifying for post-season a challenge that eliminates about half the League and gives some meaning to the regular season.

To be clear, while I see flaws in the traditional American MLS playoff system, I like the fact that MLS has achieved some consistency in its format over time and certainly the alternative  formats and structures are also imperfect.

2)  SINGLE TABLE

OK, so it’s the most popular cyber whine about MLS.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not without merit.  And single table is not really a playoff format as much as it is a regular season structure that could conclude with no playoffs as is done in many leagues throughout the world or traditional American playoffs, stepladder playoffs, group play or any other format.  The positives of single table of course are the ability to compare all teams records at a glance, a balanced schedule (in theory, but potentially difficult) and conforming to most other leagues globally.  The huge negative is the risk of the bottom table teams playing for nothing over the last month of the season.

The level of parity in MLS and the ability to tier qualification for following year for CONCACAF Champions League (top 4?),   SuperLiga (next 4?) and US Open Cup (top 12?) on top of the current year playoffs (top 8?) would mean all teams would at least have SOMETHING to play for through the end of the regular season.

Pro bowling's step ladder format inspired WPS' inaugural season playoff format.

Pro bowling's step ladder format inspired WPS' inaugural season playoff format.

3) STEPLADDER

Made famous in ABC’s televised PRO BOWLING ASSOCIATION tournaments, Saint Louis Athletica Owner Jeff Cooper and I devised the single table stepladder structure and format for Women’s Professional Soccer in its inaugural season.  The stepladder generously rewards (and penalizes) regular season performance as the regular season champion only needs to win one game (at home) to capture the Championship.  Yet, the format does not preclude upsets or low ranking teams winning the post-season.

The format needs to be tweaked for a league as large as MLS – perhaps by providing a first round play in for the lower ranked qualifying team.

The main criticism of this format is the amount of rest for the regular champion (two weeks), which can lead to rustiness.  The top team can, however, schedule a friendly to keep sharp in the while awaiting their final foe.

4) OTHER

Let me know if you have a better structure.  And I mean STRUCTURE, not a tweak of one of the above.  I’m not sure how many other basic structures there are.  Perhaps group play followed by single game semi-finals and final.

While there is no perfect structure or format, I personally prefer some form of the stepladder with single table, but respect those that feel the other formats are better as they each have strengths and weaknesses.  Please vote for your preferred MLS structure in the comments below and let me know what you think are the benefits and flaws of each.  If you vote for #3, add which, if any playoff format you prefer.  If you vote for #4, please describe your new structure.   And keep in mind the three objectives stated up top.

Finally, Chris Armas’ former Chicago Fire teammate Jesse Marsch, who has been sidelined recently from Chivas USA due to a concussion, submitted the following comments on Ring of Fire inductee Chris Armas after last week’s column was posted:

Aside from his obvious abilities on the field, there were 3 things that made Chris very different and special from all the other players with which I have played.

First, he almost always put himself last within the context of the team.  He tried to think of other people and their state of mind and situations when leading the team.  There were often times where he would call a players only meeting to try and address the mentality of the team and make sure that everyone had a common purpose in mind.  This coupled with a lot of little conversations he would have with individuals, including myself, seemed to invest each person in the team and in Chris.

Another way he exemplified his selflessness was how he dealt with playing for both the national team and the Chicago Fire.  Every player I have ever played with, that has been fortunate enough to represent their national team, has gone through moments of indifference toward their club team.  Chris was the only exception.  He told very few national team stories, never named dropped big time players, and made everyone feel that he put everything into the Fire at all times.  I’m sure he was the same way when he was with the US team.  He was a great professional.

Second, he had the ability to understand and relate with others, thus creating relationships where people believed in him as both a player and a person.  Those who watched him play were able to see how he helped make the players around him better.  That was actually more an extension of his personality than his playing style.  He was good with people, not in a corny dorky way, but in a funny charismatic manner.  The best teammates and leaders that I have ever played with all made everyone want to be better, and this was one of Chris’ major qualities.

Last, Chris hated to lose more than any human being I have ever known…and he rarely did.

Personal stories abound in my mind when I think of Chris, but I will keep them personal.  However, my favorite on the field recollection of Chris is the conference final in 2003 against New England.  It was Chris’ best game of his career in my eyes, and he scored the game winner in overtime, back in the golden goal days.  He was running past players on both teams, making play after play.  We probably should have won that game 10 times over in regular time.  Chris literally willed us to win and the look on his face when he scored the winner was the essence of Chris.

Hope you have a great week.  I know I will!

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