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The MLS playoffs are fun, but they can be better

By lengthening the playoffs, we can also make them more competitively balanced.

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Seattle Sounders Victory Parade
I realize this photo has very little to do with the story but I wanted to use it. Sue me.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

For the first time since 2003, the top seeds in each conference advanced to MLS Cup. Naturally, MLS now wants to change the format that was designed with this being one of its express purposes — rewarding regular-season excellence.

The Athletic reported last week that MLS is mulling some significant changes to the playoff format that could be implemented as early as next year. The two leading candidates are a return to the two-legged series similar to what was used from 2003-2018, or a new format that would feature group stages.

One of the main driving forces behind this change is an apparent request from Apple — the league’s new streaming partner — to increase the inventory of playoff games. Right now, there are a total of 13 and they’d like it to be closer to 30. The two-legged plan would result in 25-29 playoff games being played — depending on if the field were expanded to eight teams in each conference — while the group-stage plan would necessitate 31 games, and would also require the field to be expanded to 16 total teams.

Before getting into the specifics of each plan, I will note that there are competitive reasons to increase the number of playoff games.

As much fun as the current one-off format is as a neutral — and this year we’re getting a dream matchup in the final — I’ve always had some sporting issues 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.

Notably, it wasn’t always like this. From 1996-2002, MLS employed a best-of-3 playoff format until the final. During those seven seasons, the top two seeds advanced to the final four times and the Supporters’ Shield winner went on to win MLS Cup in all four of those years. In all seven of those seasons the Shield winner at least advanced one round. My hypothesis: more games combined with a real home-field advantage results in better outcomes.

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 last week was a reminder that for all the hype around the “runs” made by Austin FC or New York City FC, 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 are 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 (which I doubt will last beyond a couple more years, anyway).

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 in 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 that 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 frankly an 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. This will undoubtedly annoy some owners who feel as though more teams should host playoff games, but their argument is anti-competitive and should not be the primary concern of a league still striving for credibility.

I have one other change from the format suggested in The Athletic — hosting rights for the conference semifinals should be determined by finish in the group, not by points in the regular season. The two group stage winners from each conference would host the two second-place finishers. I would suggest that the conference final and MLS Cup hosting rights SHOULD be determined by regular-season points. What I like about this solution is that it balances the danger of dead-rubber matches in the final game of the group stage while still rewarding regular-season performance.

From a viewership perspective, I think this format has the added benefit of increasing interest in games not involving your team. One of the main problems facing MLS is that for many fans, they’re only a fan of the league in that it’s where their team plays. I’ve talked to many Sounders fans, for instance, who simply don’t care about games not involving the Sounders — aside from possibly hate-watching the Timbers. A group stage doesn’t perfectly address this, but it at least makes the rest of the games in your team’s group compelling.

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 is selected. That’s in addition to potentially seven additional games from Leagues Cup, as many as eight games in CCL, six games in the US 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 reducing 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 (as is the current plan). This adds even more weight to each regular-season match and also gives the sense of two distinct halves.

Combine all of this together and I think there’s real potential to satisfy the various parties’ wants and needs. I know another playoff format change — as well as expanding the field — will annoy a certain subgroup of fans, but as long as there’s a commitment to stick with this change I think those concerns are greatly mitigated.

A version of this column first appeared in the Nos Audietis newsletter. You can read and subscribe to that here.

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