Playoffs? Are You Kidding Me? 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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

19 thoughts on “Playoffs? Are You Kidding Me? PLAYOFFS?!?

  1. Scott Viar

    DC won MLS Cup 1997 at home against Colorado, the only other time a team has had home field in MLS Cup.

  2. Pattrick

    I like the Idea that was presented on The idea was for the MLS to return to the Manga cup in spain in Feburary and using the PanPacific championchip as another tourenment desination for mls clubs. the break down would be 1-4 concacaf champs league, 5-8 superliga, 9-11 off to spain for the Manga cup, and 12 and 13 place finishers to Haiwi for the PanPacific. That means that only the lonly Redbull and SJ would not have an international tournement to play in next year.

    this would be a great way to make sure that every game matter for something toward the end of the season. If you are not going to send team down to lower leagues at least make it clear that they should be fight for points at the end of the season because two more wins and the redbulls could have found themseleve in Haiwi in Febuary, or 4 more wins and they would be off to spain at a chance to win their 2nd, thats right, 2nd Manga Cup.

    Even in to years when the league expands to 18 teams, with this format you would still have 13 teams earning a spot in an international tournament for the next season, as well as the top 8 making the playoffs.

  3. goquakes

    single table wouldn’t work because of how far apart the coasts are… sure it works in countries the size of california

  4. WonsanUnited

    Well with a balanced shcedule coming out next season, what’s the point of two conferences?

  5. Matthew N

    I still think the league is far too small to let so many teams in. The regular season is virtually meaningless. Columbus won the league and all they get is to play the hottest team that snuck into the playoffs at the last second. Hell, there is NO advantage since it is the dumb two game aggregate goal thing. In fact, finishing first could very well be a disadvantage (since Cbus rested some starters, may be out of form, while they have to play RSL who has played well to get in for the last spot). I think the playoffs need to be reduced in size until the league expand.

    I’m not a big fan of playoffs for the league title, so I don’t really have an opinion about a proper structure. I just think it is dumb when leagues like the NHL, MLS, and NBA let almost half of their teams into the playoffs. I also think playing a two game series on aggregate is stupid. If you want to play more than one match, play three and give the higher seed home field advantage. Otherwise, stick to single elimination.

    As I said before, I’m not a big fan of playoffs. Eventually I’d like to see the MLS go to a single table format and people can get their fill for “playoffs’ with the CONCACAF Champion’s League. Obviously, it will be a very long time until this happens (since 99% of Americans probably don’t even know there is a Champion’s League), but hey… a guy can dream right?

  6. Sean

    I like that we have the playoffs. One of the beautiful things about the game is the way it mutates to reflect the culture it comes from, right? What’s more American then the best team in the league getting stuffed by the hungry, hot, (but still fundamentally crap) team in a short series? Every American league has those stories, and they’re treasured. Playoffs present a distillation of the season – more pressure, a higher cut of the league – and a chance for redemption or disaster. I hope we don’t ever do away with them in our top-flight league.

    This is our culture. We have to be what we are if we’re gonna join the world dance, eh?

  7. Julian

    An idea that has been rattling around in my little brain is somewhat similar to the stepladder concept, but it maintains conferences. Here’s how it goes: Eight teams make the playoffs in two conferences; teams 1, 2, 3, and 4 in both east and west. In the first round, teams 3 and 4 play each other home and away. Team 3 gets to choose if it plays home or away the first game.
    The winner of that series – ideally team 3 – goes on to meet team 2 at their home in a one-off game (It could be home and away too … I don’t care). The winner of that match (ideally team 2) goes on to meet team 1 at home in a one-off. Needless to say, conference winners meet each other in the finals to determine the champion.

    The idea here is to stack the deck of the teams that perform best in the regular season and make life harder for the ones who don’t. I’m thinking there could even be an automatic one goal advantage given to the team that finished higher vs. the lower seeded team or does that seem too NASL like?

  8. Mark

    I’m not sure where to credit this idea – might’ve been a forum or a blog somewhere, not sure which, just saying that I’m not the first to come up with it – but I always thought it was interesting: call the event the Playoffs for familiarity’s sake, but structure it basically like the Confederation’s Cup this past summer. In other words, have two seeded groups of four play three games in a round-robin, with the top two teams moving on to a Conference Final and then MLS Cup Final.

    This structure presents several advantages. First, it potentially represents a more equitable outcome for those who don’t like traditional playoffs – quality will undoubtedly show since a given team would be required to play everyone in their group. Second, it could make final standing (whether still in the Conference structure or in a single table) matter much more – since each team would only play three games, the teams with the better records at the end of the season would be seeded and given home field advantage. For instance, the top team in the Eastern group would have all three games at home, the second highest team would have two, the third highest one, and the team that (at least theoretically) barely squeaked into the playoffs would have the hardest test by playing on the road for all three games. I’m not settled on whether the Conference Finals (or the MLS Cup Semi-Finals, whichever you wanted to call it) would be between the top two from each group, or if the final four would be re-seeded and then play the semi-final. A third advantage is that this structure still allows for crazy, quirky, and exciting outcomes – again, think Confed Cup with USA advancing against all odds.

    A few disadvantages to this structure include potential lost revenue for the clubs that host only one or no games. This structure would also require an additional game, but given that it is a single additional game, this may be less of a problem. A group structure would also potentially be more difficult to explain quickly and easily to the broader non-soccer public.

    At the very least, it’s an interesting idea to consider. I am not entirely familiar with the post-season tournaments in FMF, so their structure may be similar to this.

  9. Nick

    Hi Peter, really enjoying reading your thoughts on soccer.

    As a soccer fan living and born in England the idea of Playoffs to decide the Championship is a little hard to get your head around, but with your conference system it does seem to work well. In fact, if implemented in England there might even be a chance that Stoke City could win the league, which currently is increasingly unlikely to happen for most of the clubs in the league. So much for a sporting competition.

    You asked for alternative Play-Off structures, well how about the one that’s just been used for the first time in the European Super League. That’s a Rugby League competition and the highest level in Europe (although made up of clubs mostly from the north of England).

    Week One
    * Qualifying Play Off 1: 1st vs 4th (winner receives a bye to week three)
    * Qualifying Play Off 2: 2nd vs 3rd (winner receives a bye to week three)
    * Elimination Play Off 1: 5th vs 8th (loser goes out)
    * Elimination Play Off 2: 6th vs 7th (loser goes out)
    Week Two
    * Preliminary Semi Final 1: Higher-ranked QPO Loser vs lower-ranked EPO Winner
    * Preliminary Semi Final 2: Lower-ranked QPO Loser vs higher-ranked EPO Winner
    Week Three
    * Qualifying Semi Final 1: Higher-ranked QPO Winner vs PSF Winner of their choice*
    * Qualifying Semi Final 2: Lower-ranked QPO Winner vs other PSF Winner *
    Week Four
    * Grand Final: QSF1 Winner vs QSF2 Winner
    (can be seen a little more simply:

    Maybe if adapted to fit the conference system this would work well in MLS. It rewards the regular season record of all teams, particularly the team with the best record who get to pick their choice of Semi Final opponent.


  10. Scott Yoshonis

    I vote for the group stage, then knockout idea. I’ve been advocating it for years, because I think it accomplishes the three objectives Peter listed better than any other. Also, there is a soccer precedent for it, namely, the World Cup, which would have the added benefit of providing a bit of familiarity to the league for those fans who are introduced to the sport by watching the World Cup.

    Here’s how I would do it, and why:

    Two groups of four teams, seeded by regular-season finish, all games at the home of the higher seed.

    Group A: Seeds 1, 4, 6, 8.
    Group B: Seeds 2, 3, 5, 7.

    I believe that that particular seeding structure is necessary because it best rewards regular-season performance. Every higher seed has a distinct advantage over the one below it, which makes jockeying for position even after you’ve qualified for the playoffs important, making more regular-season games down the stretch mean something to more teams. In fact, every team has something to play for until the very last day, unless they either A) clinch the top overall seed or B) are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

    The top seed gets all home games, and has to face no higher than the fourth seed.
    The #2 seed gets all home games.
    The #3 seed gets to avoid the #1 seed.
    The #4 seed gets more home games than the #5 seed.
    #5 gets a home game AND gets to avoid #1.
    #6 gets a home game, unlike #7.
    #7 avoids #1.
    #8 is just happy to be there, which is better than #9, who is not.

    Also, the tiebreaker for teams level on points at the end of the group stage is higher seed, which places even more of a premium on winning games in the regular season.

    Three group games can be played Saturday-Wednesday-Sunday or some such, and the league semifinals between A1 v. B2 and B1 v. A2 would be single-elimination at the home of either the higher regular-season seed or the group winners, depending on which you’d rather reward. Personally, I’d like it to go to the group winners, making more final games of the group stage meaningful.

    It isn’t a perfect system, but there simply isn’t one; as I said, I believe that it accomplishes the three objectives of the playoffs better than any other.

  11. Dave

    I am from the UK but I think playoffs are fine if the format meats the criteria specified by Peter.
    The group system sounds ideal and gives the season standing much needed meaning.

    Alternatively, if single table, give the overall a winner of the league a bye to the final and have the next 8 teams playoff for a spot.

  12. David E

    I prefer the stepladder idea. I would structure it similar to the Australian A-League, but with more teams. I would have the top team in each conference play the second place team in the other conference in “major semifinals” while teams ranked 5 through 8 would contest the “minor semifinals”. The winners of the minor sf would play the losers of the major sf with the winners playing the winners of the major sf, then finals. Now that I think about it, I guess they really should be major and minor quarterfinals.

  13. Peter Wilt Post author

    a friend of mine in pro soccer in the US emailed me this response that i thought deserved wider consideration:

    1. I remain a very big proponent on “pick your own opponent” – which is the structure used by D-League and English Rugby. I sincerely believe it’s the most fair model – and the best for creating PR. Teams that finish at the top of their conference should be given the right to avoid teams that would require too much travel, that may be on a “hot streak,” that have “had their number” during the regular season, doesn’t have any major injuries/nat’l team call-ups…in other words, in an 8 team playoff structure, the #7 ranked team can actually be a “better competitive match-up” for the #1 team, yet the #1 team is forced to play the #8 team as its “reward” for being the best in the regular season, etc…

    2. I recently read about this idea from the Denver Nuggets GM and thought it had some merit…thought you might find it interesting as well:

  14. Mike

    The biggest question I have on the MLS playoffs is this– why is the first round
    an aggregate home/away series, then the following two rounds single elimination?

    I think it should all be single elimination or have the last two rounds follow the
    aggregate format….it doesnt make sense to me this way? To find the best team,
    maybe it makes sense to do it in a two game series all the way through?



  15. Peter Wilt Post author

    Well, baseball used to have a best of five and then best of seven and that may be a better comparison. You’re right of course that consistency throughout is generally better. There are two resaons for the current inconsistent system. One is timing as they don’t want to drag the playoffs on later and the other is the desire to solve other issues/desires:

    - They want every playoff team to have the chance to host at least one playoff game. That means 1st round must be at least 2 games.
    - They also want a “Conference Championship Game” that emulates the NFL and the ability to create more than one “Champion” in a climactic single game manner the way the NFL does with NFC and AFC championships.

    It’s a system that includes compromise, so it ends up looking like a structure made by committee….which is what it is.

    The whole playoff system actually is based on Lamar Hunt’s desire to recreate what he correctly believes is the most successful American professional sports playoff format – the NFL’s.

  16. Mike

    Thanks Peter. That makes a little more sense now….with the “exception” really being the two game series only because they want each team to be able to host a game– thanks!

  17. Tony

    I’m a little late commenting on this, but it’s such an interesting topic I just can’t help putting my two cents in.

    Peter mentioned that MLS brass wants a conference championship in order to create a climactic final. I can totally understand that. And In the NFL and MLB this system totally makes sense based on how the leagues evolved.

    However, I’ve never really liked the conference finals in the NHL and NBA’s playoffs. I think it’s kind of sad that we’ll never see a Chicago v Detroit, or a Pittsburgh v Washington Stanley Cup. But, that’s just one Chicago fan’s opinion. I wouldn’t know if it makes actual business sense.