By surfing the playoff expansion trend, MLS has devalued the regular season

Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Not even the most gifted medium could divine much of a big-game aura from a match between sides in 10th and 11th place in MLS’s Western Conference. Yet there is a potential playoff spot riding on the result of Sporting Kansas City v Minnesota United on Saturday.

It is the last weekend of the regular season: Decision Day, in league marketing-speak. It will be Thank-A-Commish-Day in Kansas City or Minnesota should either of these mediocre teams still harbor dreams of lifting the MLS Cup at the final whistle.

Minnesota fired their longtime manager, Adrian Heath, after a 5-1 loss to Los Angeles FC earlier this month and have won two of their past 10 games. Kansas City were winless in their first 10 MLS fixtures. Both could still be crowned champions in December.

So could Montreal, who have won one of their past eight and have 12 victories and 16 losses from 33 matches. So could the San Jose Earthquakes and Dallas, who both have three wins in their past 16 games. And the Chicago Fire (two wins in 10). Nashville have already qualified despite going on vacation for the second half of the league season (four wins in their past 16).

This is possible because on 21 February – four days before the start of the season – MLS announced radical changes to its playoff structure.

In 2022, 14 teams out of 28 qualified and the postseason lasted 13 games over three weeks. (The winter World Cup condensed the timing). Now, 18 out of the 29 MLS teams – the top nine in each conference – make the playoffs. Meaning: A 34-game regular season only eliminates a third of the clubs – 62% of the league will make the postseason.

Like any playoff structure, MLS rewards teams that handle the pressure of win-or-go-home contests. But this format punishes only the most egregious regular-season flops. Entering Decision Day, only six of the 29 sides are already eliminated; three of those – Miami, Toronto and LA Galaxy – have the highest payrolls in MLS. Even New York City FC, who sit 13th out of 15th in the Eastern Conference having won eight of 33 games, with 30 points fewer than Supporters Shield-winning FC Cincinnati, could make the playoffs.

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Ten teams are in the running for the last five places. And so the meh of MLS, sides such as Kansas City and Minnesota, have reason to be grateful for the largesse of league executives who have kept their campaigns alive. “We have been working on trying to find the right format for a really long time. We are playing here in North America and know the importance of playoffs to drive energy in the latter part of the season,” the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, told reporters earlier this year.

That hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement for the standard product. But it’s true that without the drama of a relegation battle, it’s harder for North American teams to stay relevant when they’re toward the bottom of the pile. And the expansion would have looked like a masterstroke if, as seemed plausible for a few weeks, Inter Messi (to give them their official name) had snuck into playoffs, creating a compelling storyline and sending the CEOs of ticket resale companies shopping for new yachts.

Energy, though, is a finite resource. What you boost in September and October you sap from March and April. For the casual fan, one who might attend a couple of games a year based on the opposition, the weather, ticket prices and whether there’s anything better to do with their time, the stakes of an early-season game are so low as to be almost subterranean. And while the forgiving format keeps plenty of teams scrapping until the end, it alleviates tension for the best sides; Cincinnati qualified for the playoffs back in August.

MLS has been an instinctively experimental league in love with contrivance from its inception. It’s tempting to see this latest move as some kind of psychological flex from the days when it was wimpy, with Garber the proud parent drawing a line on a wall growth chart and seeing how much taller his kid is. As recently as 2014 there were only 19 teams in the entire league.

Even then the playoff structure comprised of 10 teams and four rounds. This year, finishing in the top seven in each conference confers entry to a best-of-three round after the sides in eighth and ninth have faced off in a wildcard eliminator. These all go straight to penalties if level after 90 minutes. Extra-time returns for the conference semi-finals and finals and MLS Cup itself, all single elimination matches.

Fans look on before the match between the Chicago Fire and the Inter Miami CF at Soldier Field. Photograph: Jon Durr/USA Today Sports

Previously, winning a conference led to a first-round bye and all games were single knockouts. Now, valuable home advantage in the best-of-three series is afforded to the top four finishers in each conference, which should reduce the risk of upsets. First seeds play the wildcard winners.

It looks odd for the second round of a five-stage affair to be a bulbous best-of-three when the other rounds are one-off eliminators. And inconsistent for some phases to have extra time and others to go straight to a shootout. Of course, every team wants to play in front of its fans, but a two-leg format would have accomplished this without the potential need for a third fixture.

But any analysis centered on sporting injustice or good sense is missing the key driver of postseason inflation: money. MLS is simply surfing a wider trend for more knockout games, albeit in an especially amped fashion as it rides the wave. Uefa and Fifa have bloated the European Championship and the World Cup with profit-driven expansions that place even more demand on overtaxed players.

In 2020 the 32-team NFL expanded its playoffs from 12 to 14 sides. MLB, which has 30 clubs, moved from 10 to 12 last year. The NHL, with 32 franchises, hasn’t expanded its (non-Covid-altered) playoffs beyond 16 sides since 1979-80. Vying with MLS for the most excess is the NBA: including its play-in tournament (playoffs to reach the playoffs!), 20 of 30 teams qualify. The College Football Playoff shifts from four to 12 teams in 2024-25: and why wouldn’t it, when tripling the teams triples the income?

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With live sports cherished by broadcasters in the cord-cutting era, it is inevitable that leagues and their TV paymasters expand the number of games and naturally the hyped-up postseasons attract higher audiences. In past seasons, roughly half a million viewers watched regular-season MLS games. But the 2022 MLS Cup final, a thriller won by Gareth Bale’s LAFC, enticed 2.16m viewers.

After signing a 10-year, $2.5bn deal with Apple, MLS is now in the business of persuading customers to pay for live games on Apple TV+, and the more fixtures available to stream, the more attractive the package (though Apple and MLS do not publish audience data).

“More games are better than less, typically,” says Patrick Crakes, a media consultant and former Fox Sports executive. “The amount of inventory powers media economics. A general rule: if you expand your playoffs there’ll be money there somewhere.” While it may upset purists, he doubts that extended postseasons have a negative impact on viewing or advertising earlier in the campaign.

“When you break down the objective truth of this, the economics pencil out really nicely,” he says, pointing out that in the NBA, “people have been talking about ‘nobody starts playing until Christmas’ for a long time,” but the rights values continue to soar. And with player salaries and general costs on the rise, MLS needs to grow income just like any other business.

“This was the right thing for them to do and expanding the playoffs is what everybody’s doing,” Crakes says. “That was what Apple needed, to show more value to give them $250m which was two times anything they were going to get anywhere else. That Apple deal made it possible for Messi to come. You can tie expanded playoffs to Messi. You really can.”


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