Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

It Took A Global Pandemic, But The Opportunity Is Here To Fix MLS' Dreadful Playoff System

When talking about MLS, it always feels necessary to proclaim your position and biases from the outset. Generally, any fight about the structure or workings of the domestic soccer league starts a food-fight of varying grossness, so it’s a good idea to stake out your position clearly so you know which angle to duck the hurled mac & cheese.

In that vein, I’m what used to be called a “euro-phile,” in that I basically only watch European leagues and rarely watch MLS. This used to be something of a snobbery angle, and still is in some circles, though now it just gets down to a time factor as much if not more so. Still, I check in with MLS from time to time, with a pledge at the start of every campaign that I’ll do better. I was highly entertained by the Union-LAFC 3-3 banger last Sunday, but under normal circumstances I’ll give up and merely spend my summers believing this Jason Heyward single is the signal of a turnaround.

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Maybe there is hope for the MLS after all.
Maybe there is hope for the MLS after all.
Photo: Getty

There are plenty of reasons people like me, huge soccer fans, don’t make MLS a big or even noticeable part of our viewing schedule. Personally, it’s harder to get invested because my local team, Chicago Fire, has been a basketcase of an organization for close to a decade. And even when they were good, which has been rare, that still took all kinds of justifications to make the 45-to-90 minute excursion to the industrial park with barely any industry that they played in. Even on the ever-friendly pub-to-pitch deals around town, you were still asking for a longer-than-comfortable bus ride home already hungover and needing to pee. I spend enough time like that as it is. It’s a sport that requires passion to follow, or certainly is a lot easier to do so when passion and local interest are the main ingredients.

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We could get into arguments about perception and actual quality of the league and its entertainment factor or only recently-locked-in broadcast times, or that it’s basically a Ponzi scheme, but the main factor that keeps me away is the schedule. It makes no sense, hasn’t for just about the league’s entire existence, and is a problem. And though only people like Rahm Emanuel view crises as opportunities (and the parallels between Rahm and Littlefinger are just too hard to ignore), MLS like every other league will be coming up with an experimental schedule for the rest of this season (usual disclaimer that this is hardly the most pertinent question leagues and society have to face during this pandemic, but here we are anyway). Perhaps this is the time to see if it can run something that looks like the rest of the world, or more like it, and how their fans would respond.

At the moment, MLS has a 34-game schedule where every team plays the teams in its conference home and away, and then 10 games against teams in the other conference. As both conferences have 13 teams this year (14 next year, 15 after that, and I assume 27 in each by 2041 as the league continues to sustain itself through expansion fees. Hello, Mizzoula Rangers FC!), this gets a little fishy as not every team is playing the exact same schedule. And given the enforced parity of the league, it very well might matter if you played LAFC or Nashville. The top seven teams in each conference get to the playoffs, with the top seeds getting a bye to the conference semifinals.

But with over half the league making the playoffs, regular season games lack urgency. And soccer is not a sport that can lack urgency. Watching your grandparents argue over the tip set to Portishead b-sides is more entertaining than soccer without urgency. Sure, local rivalries like in the PNW or intra-city derbies in LA or New York will always have pop, but there aren’t enough of them to give every team’s schedule a sharp end. Even locally, Fire fans have claimed that Columbus is their main rival. But have you really ever tried to generate emotion about Columbus? Unless you went to Michigan, you have to strain harder than Dave Grohl does trying to make a Foo Fighters song sound interesting. And like him, you’ll fail.

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MLS has tried to jigger this in all sorts of ways to give the season more spikes on the EKG. Now with the top teams in each conference getting a bye, there is some desperation to claim that spot. Except it still doesn’t help all that much when the playoffs are one-off games and as LAFC and NYFC learned last fall, just about anything can happen in one game. Merely having it at home isn’t much of an advantage.

Sergio Aguero and Manchester City are great. The Premier League’s system is even better.
Sergio Aguero and Manchester City are great. The Premier League’s system is even better.
Photo: Getty
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Still, if you’re not competing for the top spot — and neither conference race was all that close last season — that leaves three to five teams with their fate decided for a large chunk of the season. You’re going to the playoffs in some order, and home games don’t matter that much. Combine that with the teams who aren’t making the playoffs, and you have anywhere from seven to 10 teams per conference that don’t have to wake up between August and October. The idea of playoffs was that it would keep more teams, and hence their fans, with interesting games for longer, and yet we’ve still ended up with half the league or more staring at their watch for a third or more of the season. How is that better?

This is where the argument for promotion/relegation comes in, but I gave up on that long ago (even though when MLS does eventually get to 32 teams, it would not be that hard to split them into two, 16-team leagues. But we’ll run that kitten over when we get to it). It’s just not going to happen, even if MLS still has too many teams outside the playoff picture who are simply making up the numbers from about July onward.

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Still, MLS ratings continue to lag well behind the Premier League’s or Liga MX’s, the latter of which is still the most popular league in this country. And MX has a playoff system, so it’s not foreign to the sport.

But as MLS is going to have a shortened window, it can at least take a peek at how its fans would react to a different way in the long run.

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It is likely that similar to every other sport, MLS isn’t going to start again until mid-June at the earliest. That means it’s going to have about 18 weeks to work with in its normal window to wrap up at the beginning of November. The season used to run until the beginning of December some years, so they may go that far to give themselves 22 weeks to play with, but you can bet they don’t want to get close to the holidays no matter what happens. Even if the idea of a Boxing Day game in Toronto or Montreal and the orange ball fills me with glee.

The solutions are aplenty. If MLS gets that 22-week window, the simplest plan is to disregard the two games already in the books (shit happens), have every team play every other one once for a 25-game schedule with some midweek fixtures, and then hand the trophy off to Carlos Vela at the end of it, award the next three-best teams CONCACAF Champions League spots for 2021 and move on. This will also never happen, but it’s the format everyone knows, and again, due to the rising popularity of European leagues, seemingly no one has much problem with either.

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Another solution would be to keep the conference system, have everyone play everyone else in their conference twice in the remaining time MLS will have (24 games), and then have your showcase final between the two winners of the conferences. You could award the CONCACAF Champions League places to the four best overall, or the two best in each conference. The latter is probably more fair. This will also never happen, because it will still have some 18-20 teams in the league with not much to play for for a large chunk of the season.

Or there is the MX-mirror option, sort of. When MLS returns, keep the conference-only format from above but only play each other once in a 12-game schedule that wouldn’t rely on midweek games, which MLS teams hate anyway. Keep the same number of playoff teams with top teams in each conference getting a bye, but then weight it as MX does in two-legged playoffs. The lower-seeded team has to beat the higher-seeded team over two legs. A draw over two legs advances the higher team.

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Twelve games probably isn’t enough of a sample for this, and 24 games with a home-and-away system eats up too much time. Still, it would give the regular season more meaning, which MLS lacks now. Only two Supporters Shields (most regular-season points) have won MLS Cup in a decade, and they’re the only two to even reach the final as well. Finishing second in a conference would still mean merely not having to lose two two-legged playoffs to reach the conference final, and on down the line. And because soccer is decided on such tight margins, with only one or two moments per game mattering the most, losing the first leg away, 1-0, is a different proposition when you only have to reverse that scoreline to advance instead of playing the second leg knowing one away goal against is going to essentially one-winged angel your chances.

When Dan Garber first took over as commissioner, he made a series of moves in his bid to make the US game look more like the game fans watched around the world. Out went shootouts and in came ties, redesigning every jersey to look more with what fans were used to with a club badge and shirt sponsor, etc. There are still steps to go, and this chaos will provide an opportunity to see if more can be done.

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