MLS' regular season and playoff schedule structure needs fixing
MLS playoff structure is deeply flawed and needs changing
Too many teams qualify for playoffs, regular season unrewarding
Playoffs should adopt group format giving best teams chance to meet in final
With two months to go in an eight-month season, it's fair to say that by most standards MLS has enjoyed a good season. The level of play slowly keeps improving. League-wide attendance is about to set a new record. Due to smart expansion, a stadium boom and soccer's huge popularity in the Pacific Northwest, MLS has more and more games that look and sound and feel major league.
Are there problems? Sure. But I can't think of one that's more important for MLS's owners to fix than the league's playoff structure. Three of the past six MLS Cup champions simply haven't felt deserving, in large part because:
1. too many teams make the playoffs,
2. regular-season excellence isn't rewarded nearly enough in the postseason,
3. the three-round, four-game playoff bracket has turned the playoffs into a lottery where every team has roughly the same chance of winning.
This year's slightly modified playoff structure isn't any better. Ten (up from eight) of MLS' 18 teams will make the postseason, with six receiving automatic bids (for finishing in the top three of the Eastern or Western Conferences) and the teams with the next four best records earning wild-card berths. The wild cards will stage a one-game play-in, and from there it's the same bracket as in previous years, which defines unrewarding -- for everyone.
The big problem this year is highlighted by the dominance of the Western Conference. With everyone playing a balanced 34-game schedule (facing every other team home and away), MLS's top four teams are all in the West: Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Seattle and Dallas.
What does that mean? It means there's more incentive to finish third in the woeful East than first (and avoid meeting the No. 4 West team in the conference semifinals). It means the team with the eighth-best MLS record (currently D.C. United, based on points per game) has a far easier playoff road than the team with the fourth-best record (Dallas), simply due to geography. It means the team with the second- or third-best MLS record (currently Salt Lake and Seattle) will be out of the playoffs before we've reached the final four.
And it means the teams with the two top regular-season records have zero chance of meeting in the MLS Cup final.
That's not just imbalanced. That's laughable.
What's the solution? I'm not one of the people who think MLS should drop the playoffs and go with a single table like most European leagues. Playoffs are more exciting, and playoffs done the right way are a rewarding way to crown a deserving champion, as we've seen in so many other U.S. sports.
But there's a much better playoff structure MLS could use, one that could start as soon as next year and remain in place permanently, no matter how many teams MLS adds to the league in the future. The idea (first proposed by Brian Straus, now of The Sporting News) is this: two World Cup-style four-team groups followed by a four-team bracket with league semifinals and a one-game MLS Cup final.
Here's how it would work. You'd keep the Eastern and Western Conferences. As I'll explain below in my idea for how to schedule a 20-team league, a regular-season schedule weighted with in-conference games would limit the cross-country travel that I think is a problem in the current setup. If MLS wants to hand trophies to the conference winners, then it can do so based on the regular season. Then the playoffs can start.
To make MLS owners happy we'll keep it a 10-team postseason and have the fourth- and fifth-place teams in each conference stage a one-game play-in. The groups will then look like this:
West 4 (winner of play-in between West 4 and West 5)
East 4 (winner of play-in between East 4 and East 5)
Just like the World Cup, each team will play a game against the other teams in its group. But (unlike the current system) there will be a big home-field advantage for the higher seeds to reward regular-season success. The top seed in the group will host all three of its group games; the No. 2 seed will host two; the No. 3 seed will host one; and the No. 4 seed will hit the road for all three of its group games.
World Cup-style groups prevent one fluky early result (remember Switzerland beating Spain?) from being fatal. The East-West cross-pollination will create national interest, and the group format means fans of one team in the group will still intensely watch the group games that don't involve their team. Having the final group games take place at the same time will also create some real excitement if the group finish is still up for grabs.
The top two teams in Group A and Group B will advance to the MLS semifinals, which will pit A1 vs. B2 and B1 vs. A2. The semis will be played over two games, home and away, decided by total goals (with the away-goal rule not being used) and, if necessary, extra time and penalty kicks. The first game will be played at the stadium of the second-place group finisher. I'm O.K. with a two-game semifinal, but I also like my man Straus' idea: If the A1 or B1 team outright wins the first leg on the road, it goes straight to the final and the second leg doesn't happen. That would be an incentive for the players to earn a few more days of rest and to create an open game in the first leg.
The MLS Cup final would be a one-game affair. Ideally, it would take place at the stadium of the finalist with the better regular-season record, but I'd be fine with a neutral-site final if it's that much easier for the league to plan long in advance.
So there you have it: A far more equitable MLS playoff structure in which the two top regular-season teams could always meet in the final; in which regular-season excellence is rewarded with sufficient home-field advantage; in which the playoffs would last only six weekends (and a midweek game for the play-in round), not much longer than the current four; and, not least, in which the ultimate winner can be assured it deserves to be called the MLS champion. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
But there's another important element that goes along with this, which brings me to my plan for ...
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