MLS Playoffs & Competition Format - What Could Be

I'm not gonna lie, my motivation is that I have spent much of the day watching the last day of the professional tackle-football season and watching playoff scenarios and seedings fall into place. It all gets me thinking about how the MLS is going to work going forward.

Yeah, okay, that's a reach, but bear with me. You see, I've actually nothing against playoffs; I just actively hate the MLS playoffs. Fact is, I find the NFL playoffs fundamentally flawed as well. I'll spare you the excruciating details of how and what I would do to fix it, but just know that it is a logical fallacy to assume that the NFL playoff format is fantastic because so many people love the NFL playoffs. What people love is that it is professional tackle-football and the intensity derived from "loser-out" competition; similarly people love college football but the consensus opinion seems to be that the BCS is a joke and the "super-conference" system is getting, um… silly.

But that is all rather beside the point.

As some of you may be aware, I have had a hunch for some time now that when the MLS finally gets around to adding that 20th team (which seems a necessity given the tortured schedule gyrations the League is going through with an uneven number of teams) there will be 4 divisions - meaning two in each conference. The smoking gun - and reason I am now CERTAIN this will be the case, lies in the current format for the 2012 season, which I will explain in a bit.

It will probably stun many of my readers to realize that a 4 division system is actually something I could enthusiastically get behind, but not necessarily in the way that MLS wants to do it. So I'll begin with a look into the way I would do it:

First of all, the divisional groupings seem blatantly obvious, whether it is my way or the MLS way;

Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, RSL, Colorado

San Jose, LA, Chivas, Houston, Dallas

K.C., Chicago, Columbus, Toronto, Montreal

N.E., N.Y., Phily, D.C.,

So that 20th team would slot into the last grouping there, assuming that works geographically. Frankly, I stopped paying any attention to who the 20th team might be some time ago, and have been assuming that it will be a 2nd NY/NJ team. It's best we just move along with this…

The Schedule:

First of all, you play everyone in your conference twice, so that is 18 matches right there.

As for inter-conference, let's refer to the divisions as W1, W2, E1, and E2.

in odd years W1 teams would play E1 teams twice (home and away, obviously), and similarly with W2 vs. E2. In even years, reverse it: W1 vs E2 and W2 vs E1. So we are up to 28 matches now.

Of course, I want everyone to play everyone to play everyone at least once a year, so you would have 5 games against teams in the other cross-conference division, which brings us up to 33 matches. For that 34th match I would play a second match against one of those 5 inter-conference teams, and to determine who I would borrow an idea from the NFL, and have that additional match be against the team that placed the same in the previous year's divisional standings (ie. 1 vs 1, 2 vs 2, etc.)

Why do i like this? Because in my mind the more balanced the schedule the better, and I like it when the regular season means something, and the Supporter Shield means something. I could elaborate but I think the reasoning is pretty clear. That also feeds is into playoffs.

The Playoffs:

Your 4 divisional winners are in. The next best team in each conference is in. The next two best teams in the overall league standings are in. Teams are seeded 1-8 on overall record with standard tiebreakers. Group "A" is teams 1,4,5, and 8, Group "B" is teams 2,3,6, and 7. It is a single-round robin group stage with higher seed hosting. Winner of each group hosts the runner-up in the other group in a semifinal, with the semifinal winners meeting in a Final hosted by the team with the best regular-season record.

None of this will ever happen.

What I am almost positive WILL happen:

Let's get back to that smoking gun in the current (2012) format. For Western teams, it's pretty simple with the unbalanced league. You play everyone in the West thrice (8x3 = 24) and everyone in the East once (24 + 10 = 34). In the East, however, things get let's say complicated.

Here it is: Eastern teams will play some teams 3x and others 2x.
It seems a slam-dunk to figure out what will happen next. With twenty teams each conference will have 2 divisions, and the schedule will play out like this:

Divsional x 3 = 12

Intra-conference x 2 = 10

Inter-conference x 1 = 10

"But wait!" you say, "that's only 32 games, you're missing two."

Well, there is nothing magical about 34 games. MLS has made it clear they want to limit travel and season length, and this certainly does it. Furthermore, for many years MLS played a 32-game season. The only reason 34 came to be is that MLS just decided to go with a balanced schedule one more year after bumping to 18 teams, and it kinda works out conveniently this year (at least for the Western half). I've no reason to believe 34 is a sacrosanct number. Garber, et al, can just say that the two less games will allow teams to more actively pursue Open Cup and CCL by easing schedule congestion and have teams take those all-important mid-season friendlies a little more seriously so maybe we'll only lose to Man U 4-1 . Or they could float those games against the other Conference to slightly raise chances of seeing star players, it's not like they are attached to systematic scheduling.

Playoffs:

Now that MLS has gotten rid of that pesky cross-conference business and made the playoffs conference-pure it seems a pretty simple slam dunk that division winners will be seeded 1 and 2 and the next-best team 3rd and the "wildcards" 4-5 in each conference, with the usual utterly uninspiring format we'll see this season (which itself is a re-tread of a intrinsically flawed system from 2011).

Yawn…

But it COULD be done. Even with unbalanced divisional schedules and too-many teams in the playoffs it could be done. It's actually pretty simple: the two divisional winners and the 3rd team overall in each conference are in, and 4 hosts 5 in the "wild card" round. Then, you guessed it…. the 4 remaining teams are seeded strictly by standings (aka no guaranteed 1 or 2 seed for divisional winners) and you play that "group stage" I am so in love with.

Here's the catch: the semifinals would still be Winner of one group playing 2nd in the other, i.e West #1 vs East #2 and vice-versa. My reasoning for this is simple. If the two best teams in the League are from the same conference, or even the same division, what sense does it make to construct a system which inhibits or prohibits those two teams from playing in the Championship final?

And so, as I ponder a reality in which winning a crappy division is more valuable that actually winning more games, and the two best teams are locked in the same side of the bracket, I can still wish for something "different" from the sport I am truly passionate about.

Note: The new section "MLS Dreams and Fantasies" will contain discussions of the way we wish things were or could be. They may have little or no relationship to reality.

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