Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA
Nothing ever stays still in Major League Soccer for long. The allocation order, for example, was used for years to determine which clubs have priority to sign a player until its abolishment in January. This season an entire month was set aside for the first-ever Leagues Cup only a few years after the creation of the Campeones Cup, another mid-season competition. No change, however, has been more consequential – and controversial – than the tweaks to this season’s playoff format.
Eighteen teams (nine from each conference) entered this season’s expanded postseason, up from 14 the season before. In total, 62% of MLS’s 29 teams made the playoffs, prompting complaints that the bar had been lowered too much. The NBA is the only other big North American sports league to admit a comparable number of teams into its postseason, but at least the NBA boasts quality throughout. There are stars on every team. Did MLS fans really need to see more of Charlotte FC or the San Jose Earthquakes this season?
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There are bigger problems with the new format, though. The creation of a new best-of-three series between the wildcard round and the conference semi-finals caused confusion, not just among fans, but players too. “We’ve seen it a lot in the first games, the away teams go down two goals, and it’s like we have to prepare for the next game,” said the New York Red Bulls’ John Tolkin. “It’s not like goals matter any more.”
In the best-of-three format, the highest-seeded team hosted the first and third matches – if the series got that far. Penalty shootouts were used to decide drawn matches with no aggregate scoreline kept. Tolkin’s comments, which were widely echoed, related to the latter quirk and the fact winning and losing was binary. This was new for MLS and not something seen elsewhere in soccer. It was an alien concept.
It was thought that losing teams would preserve energy late in matches, and maybe even withdraw key players, in preparation for the next game. It didn’t matter how badly they lost, just that they lost. The fear was that some matches would become uncompetitive blowouts. The reality, however, wasn’t quite so stark.
There were a number of Game One goal-fests. Not because losing teams gave up, though, but because teams that fell behind were motivated to fight back, not limit the damage. Matches opened up. The lack of an aggregate scoreline liberated teams and helped to build excitement.
Even the ties settled over two matches had their moments – see the chaos in the FC Cincinnati-New York Red Bulls series. Every team played at least once in front of their own fans. Rivalries built from one match to the next.
MLS has long attempted to bridge the gap between the American sporting landscape and the global traditions of soccer. This year’s best-of-three series reflected that compromise, but questions over the extra strain it places on players are valid. After 34 regular season games, Leagues Cup, Campeones Cup, US Open Cup and the Concacaf Champions League, did MLS really need to add even more fixtures to the schedule? Aren’t players already at breaking point?
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More fixtures meant more inventory for MLS to offer Apple as part of the landmark $2.5bn deal reached last year. A cynic would suggest MLS bulked up its schedule, not to create the best product on the pitch, but to attract the biggest offer for its broadcast rights. This wasn’t a great starting point for devising a strong playoff format.
Fans may be more willing to embrace the new format if it doesn’t give them such whiplash from one round to the next. An eighth or ninth seed has to play a single-game elimination wildcard round before entering the best-of-three stage. After that it’s back to the single-game elimination format for the conference semi-finals, finals and MLS Cup final.
An international break smack bang in the middle of the postseason hasn’t helped either. Any momentum built over the first two phases of the playoffs will be completely gone by the time the conference semi-finals start on 25 November, 13 days after the first round finished. And that’s in addition to the 22 days between the end of the league’s regular season and the final match of the opening round of the playoffs. By the time the next round rolls around, 35 days after the conclusion of the regular season, fans might need a recap – like you get before a new season of a Netflix show – to bring them back up to speed.
With San Diego FC entering as MLS’s 30th franchise in 2025 and further expansion (Las Vegas and Phoenix have been mentioned as future franchises) on the cards beyond that, the playoff format will almost certainly be tweaked again and again in the coming years.
Experimentation is baked into MLS, but the league must do more to look after the most important part of its season.