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.