So the playoffs are impending, and it hasn't escaped notice that the way it worked out this year is just plain wrong. Playoffs, however, are here to stay and especially because schedules are likely to become unbalanced. So how do we set up playoffs so that playing better is always rewarded?
In my opinion, the biggest problem with the playoff system as it stands is what this year's playoffs highlight: the possibility that superior teams will face off prematurely, thereby eliminating better teams while inferior teams skate by against equally inferior opposition. That either the number two or number three team in the league is guaranteed to miss the second round is just plain ludicrous, and it hurts the credibility of the MLS Cup. In a playoff system that is as fair as possible, this situation should be impossible.
Following that line of thought, I've devised a playoff system that consistently rewards better play during the regular season, and yet can easily coexist with unbalanced schedules:
I. Everybody makes the playoffs
This will seem completely weird, since the race to make the playoff cut is such a huge part of the American sports scene, but in a league with as much parity as MLS, having some arbitrary number of teams in or out of the postseason actually decreases the incentive to win in the regular season. Yes, it's important to win so you can make that cut, but after you're in, it doesn't make a huge difference where you are. It's possible the extra match will add a bit more cost to just nipping into the playoffs, but with parity the way it is, it's still very possible for a team that just barely qualified to win the whole thing.
II. The regular season is for seeding
Instead of using the regular season to define who's in and who's out, this playoff system would use it to rank teams in their conferences. The way the system will work out, being higher ranked will always be better. Because everybody makes the playoffs, almost no teams will have nothing to play for at the end of the season. It's true that a team might lock up a place before the end of the season, but the vast majority of teams will still have the possibility of moving up or down on the last day. This will matter as we will soon see.
III. Conferences play their own mini-tournaments - no crossovers
In situations like the past couple years, where one conference has been much stronger the the other, crossover has create some perverse incentives to finish lower rather than higher. No crossover means that the relative strengths of the conferences matters less.
The conferences would play off in seeded single elimination style tournaments, except with aggregate home and away matches. The first legs would be at the lower seed in midweek, with the second legs at the higher seed on weekends. In a seeded 10 team tournament, seeds 1-6 get byes into the second round while seeds 7-10 play off in the first round. Also, the top seeds are separated off into separate sides of the bracket so higher seeds cannot face each other until later rounds.
IV. The winners of each conference tournament play in the MLS Championship
This could either be a two legged final, as I would prefer, or a predetermined neutral site. I like the former option because I think it would be great for the fanbases of those top teams to see their team play for a trophy live. Those of us lucky to be at the USOC finals played in Seattle know how special that is.
Why is this better?
This system would be an improvement over the current one because every team would have an incentive to improve its positioning if it can until the very end of the season. Then once the postseason started, this system would reward the best performing teams with byes and potentially easier opponents. No exclusion and no crossover means that the difference in quality between the conferences will matter less, because we won't have the situation were a team in the better conference misses the playoffs while an inferior team in the weaker conference makes it. We also won't have the strange situation where it may be better to finish lower rather than higher. Finally, this format will give the MLS Cup the most credibility, because the competition that decides who wins it will be as fair as possible. The last team standing will have a very strong claim to being the best in MLS.