MLS playoff format: the problem that just won’t go away


We are exactly three-quarters through the MLS season. Forget adding, subtracting and dividing the number of games your favorite side has played; it’s good enough to know that Week 24 just passed in a 32-week season.

So, let the gloriously mean season of meaningful table watching and scoreboard tracking officially begin! Yes, everyone has watched the standings and scores previously.  But that’s like daydreaming about that adorable barista before you know if she’s attached; it doesn’t mean anything.

Now, with three-quarters of the MLS season in the books, it means something. (The standings, that is. Forget about the barista. She doesn’t know you exist.)

And let something else begin, too: The next round of consternation about Major League Soccer’s playoff format, one that remains highly imperfect, to say the least.

Here is the current state of the playoff union. Included in that link is a quick description of how the tweaked, 2011 playoffs work. Take second to educate yourself.  G'head.  We’ll wait …

Very well. So the problems, as they currently are shaping up, now include:

  • The fact that Dallas and Seattle, by most estimations the second and third best MLS sides behind Los Angeles, will meet early in the playoffs. Not. Good.
  • Colorado and Real Salt Lake could still break up that order; both remain within striking distance of the Western Conference leaders, especially Seattle and Dallas.  RSL and Colorado are doing OK lately, the Rapids’ weekend loss in Chicago notwithstanding. And there’s the problem. Most observers, including myself, would adjudge Colorado and RSL as superior to, well, everyone in the East except perhaps Columbus. (And that stance is looking banana-peel slippery after the ass whuppin’ Columbus took over the weekend.) So, expect some teeth gnashing over that one, as seemingly better teams from the West are forced to meet in immediate “play-in” matches, while seemingly lesser Eastern sides ride out the first round.

The second of those stress points will create a new round of conference bashing; single-table advocates absolutely abhor the conference format. Read on for why that probably falls under “too bad.”


The conference system is probably here to stay.

Personally, I don’t care one way or the other about whether the traditional American “conference” system prevails. I see both sides of the argument.  But I will say this: there is a practical benefit that will surely win out.

A “single table” format that idealists seem to favor ignores some realities.  Primarily, a single table demands a balanced schedule, meaning every club plays every other club twice (once at home, once away). That’s OK today with 18 teams. In fact, that’s a perfect fit.

But like french fries at the perfect temperature, we know an 18-team league simply is not going to last. Montreal’s addition next year makes 19 teams.  Another will quickly follow. And I don’t see MLS standing pat at 20, not when franchise fees and (even more importantly) the financial and publicity windfalls of additional TV markets are so critical to the league. Plus, single tables work better in smaller countries. Our land is vast and travel is rugged; you know, four time zones and all. The upshot is that regionally concentrated schedules probably make more sense.

So, learn to like the conferences or at least tolerate them, because they are here to stay.

Back to the playoff format:

We haven’t even addressed the bigger bugaboos, that more than half the teams earn playoff passage (my personal pet peeve) and the ping ponging format. The play-in matches are one-game format. The conference semifinals are a home-and-away aggregate goals series. The conference final is back to one game. Makes sense, no?

At any rate, none of that should detract from a good playoff race ahead. Everyone wants to avoid that play-in match, so the top three conference spots are gold. Nearer the bottom of the standings, the 10-from-18 silliness does, at least, ensure that matters will go down to the wire for most teams. Unless you’re Toronto, New England or Vancouver. For them I think it’s already safe to say, “You’ll get ‘em next year, guys.”

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