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Apple's deal is already transforming MLS

This is the first of what we hope to be a regular newsletter that will mostly be centered around the Sounders.

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7 min read

Welcome to the first-ever Nos Audietis newsletter. We're launching this as a way of complementing the podcast, ideally focusing on stories or angles we might not be writing about on Sounder at Heart but still centered around the Sounders. Once the season kicks in, our intention is to make this a one-stop hub to give you everything you need to know about the week that was and what's coming up.

Let's get started...

The Athletic had a couple pretty massive pieces of news this week that were both related to MLS's broadcast deal with Apple. The first was about a possible playoff expansion and the other was some behind-the-scenes action surrounding the rollout of what promises to be the most important agreement the league has ever signed.

Playoff formatting

Tackling the playoff expansion thing first, the reason they're related is apparently that Apple wants to see an increase in playoff games. Right now, there are a total of 13 and they'd like it to be closer to 30.

To get there, MLS is apparently considering two main vehicles. Both could involve expanding the field from seven in each conference to eight.

One plan would see the return of two-legged series, presumably with home-and-away legs through to MLS Cup, which would remain a one-off affair at the highest seed. That would give us 25 or 29 playoff games, depending on if the field was expanded. This would probably be seen as the "safer" option as it's effectively the same system we had from 2015-18 and not that different from what we had from 2002-14. (We'll dig into that a bit later.)

The other plan has gotten a lot more attention, and for good reason as it involves a rather dramatic change.

Essentially the idea would be to introduce a group stage into the playoffs. The field would be expanded to eight teams from each conference, but they'd be split into four groups of four teams. Each team would play the other three teams in their group once. The top two teams from each group would advance to a one-off knockout stage with the higher-seed (not necessarily the group winners) hosting through the final. This would result in 31 total games.

These plans are apparently far enough down the road to be voted on this week or so and could be implemented for the 2023 season.

In the broadest strokes, I don't actually have a huge problem with either proposal. Increasing the "inventory" of playoff games is a perfectly reasonable goal.

As much fun as the current one-off format is as a neutral — and this year we’re getting a dream matchup — competitively I've always had some problems with it. My main concern is that MLS teams play a marathon 34-game season and then decide their championship with a sprint that lasts 3-4 games. At most, you're talking about a playoff that is 11% as long as your regular season. In the NBA and NHL, the playoffs are the equivalent of 24-34%; in the NFL it's 18-25%; and in baseball 10-14%. Yes, the regular-season provides the reward of getting to host more games, but one bad game can spoil an otherwise amazing season and a relatively short hot streak can result in a championship. We've seen this happen repeatedly. That we've only seen one team win the Supporters' Shield-MLS Cup double from 2013-2021 is illustrative enough of this problem.

The other problem with this relatively short playoff period is a bit more connected to Apple's concern in that there's no real time to build narratives. Just listening to a show like ExtraTime Radio this week was a reminder that for all the hype around Austin FC or New York City FC's "runs", we're still talking about two games. Those aren't particularly compelling storylines and there's so little time to tell them anyway.

So, yes, consider me part of team "expand the playoffs." That said, I'm not sure I really like either solution as it was presented in The Athletic. Here's two plans I think could work:

Two-legged playoff format

Part of the reason that the two-legged format was scrapped in the first place was that it didn't really give higher seeds much of a competitive edge, beyond the possibility of playing overtime at home. There was even a valid argument to be made that playing the first leg at home was preferable. Simply reviving that seems like a pretty lame idea, even if it includes the top seed getting a bye into the conference semifinals.

I think we should probably just expand the playoff field to 16 teams — eight from each conference — since that seems inevitable as long as MLS continues to grow. I would hope we make a commitment to stop there, but that's an issue for another day. My twist on the format is actually two parts:

  1. Give the No. 1 seed home playoff games all the way through. That means playing both legs of the first three rounds at home as well as the right to host MLS Cup.
  2. The other twist is to get rid of away goals and simply award the first tiebreaker to the higher seed until MLS Cup. That at least gives a real advantage to seeds 2-4. Yes, I know this could lead to some boring game-plans from higher-seeds, but it's balanced out by the lower seeds being incentivized to go all out knowing that they can't play for overtime or penalties.

Group-stage format

This would obviously be a much bigger change, but as someone who championed a similar format back when Brian Straus first recommended it nearly a decade ago, I think it deserves some genuine consideration.

It has been observed that the regular-season is already sort of a group stage. Shrinking it down for the postseason is just a little redundant. I get it and don't really have a great rebuttal, but I do think it underscores how important it is to give the regular season real meaning in this format.

As outlined in The Athletic article, giving the top two seeds in each group two home games and one to each of the bottom seeds DOES NOT do that. It's a frankly idiotic idea, especially when you consider the optics of the group's No. 1 seed having to play on the road against the No. 4 seed. I'm honestly a little amazed that this is even being considered.

The solution is simple and one that Straus already suggested in his original plan: The higher seed hosts every game in the group stage. Yep, that means the No. 1 seeds get three home games and the No. 4 seeds gets zero.

Regular-season points — not group stage record — would continue to determine home games during the knockout stage of the tournament.

The downside of that is the possibility of so-called dead-rubber games during the later stages of the group stage, especially if the top seed wins its first two games and is already assured advancement regardless of outcome. That might simply be the cost of trying to balance the various goals of this format.

Shorten the regular season

Either of these formats promises to add games to what is already an increasingly busy MLS schedule. The best teams would end up playing 3-4 more games than they do now depending on which format they choose. That's in addition to potentially seven additional games from Leagues Cup, as many as eight games in CCL, six games in Open Cup and the potential for even more in things like Club World Cup and Campeones Cup. Something has to give, and hopefully it's not player health.

I think you have to consider trimming the regular season. The easiest thing to do would be to go down to 32 games, which only requires each team to give up one home game. But there's a pretty good argument for going down all the way to 30, which was how many games MLS teams played from 2003-10.

Aside from limiting wear and tear on players, this sets up a scenario where you can easily split the league into Eastern and Western conferences that don't play each other in the regular season.

Assuming MLS ultimately expands to 32 teams, this allows the league to break into two 16-team conferences and play a double round-robin without crossing over. This also adds a bit more intrigue to Leagues Cup where teams will only play group-stage opponents they don't normally face in the regular season.

Speaking of Leagues Cup, I'd also suggest using the first half of the season as the seeding mechanism rather than the previous season. This adds even more weight to each regular-season match and also gives the sense of two distinct halves.

Stray thoughts on the AppleTV deal

I love everything I've seen about the way this will look eventually. They're promising something like 40% of the games will be in front of a paywall, that they're going to basically double the number of cameras and increase the quality to 4K, and most of the talent will be announcers we already know and love from the national and local broadcasts. This is all very good.

But it's become almost impossible to believe that this will be in place by the start of the 2023 season, which is less than four months away. They are going to have to scale back on these plans A LOT, I'm afraid, and my only hope is that the product isn't so bad that it poisons the future potential.

If they can manage to get through 2023 without completely falling on their face, however, I think there's a very real potential for this to be a truly transformational deal. The games will be more accessible than ever, produced at a higher quality than ever and give the league the kind of monetary push it needs to continue progressing toward one of the world's top circuits.

What we’re hearing

The Sounders have made the first offseason signing of the season, adding Sota Kitahara as a Homegrown Player. Kitahara can play as a box-to-box midfielder or as a right-sided fullback/wingback. Those aren’t exactly positions of needs, so don’t be surprised if Kitahara ends up going on loan somewhere.

We’ve heard rumors of a couple managerial moves that could result in possible loan destinations for Kitahara. One is former Defiance head coach John Hutchinson returning to the J-League’s Yokohama Mariners and the other is Christian Ziege joining an unnamed 2. Bundesliga team. Ziege coached Kitahara at FC Pinzgau Saalfelden.

Sounders things you need to know