I know, I know. There’s nothing MLS fans hate more than someone who doesn’t watch as regularly as they do telling them what’s wrong with their league. Even with my expanded efforts to watch, understand, and develop an attachment to our domestic league, I’m still a long way off from being a tried and true “MLS fan.” And I’m still one of those that anytime he sees an MLS player in the USMNT lineup not named Miles Robinson, the drywall in my living room is likely in for some damage (I have some patience for Walker Zimmerman. I have picked enough fights with the good people of Nashville from my hockey days).
And given that I just wrote about the drama of Decision Day, which is a direct extension of MLS’s playoff system, I’m being hypocritical (and assholic) to try and change it. Colorado surprisingly took the Western Conference top spot and the bye that comes with it. RSL had a last minute winner to send the whole of the LA contingent home for the winter. Along with the various seeding equations that became settled, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the current system is working as intended.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. One, it’s hard for fans to get too invested in “seeding.” Sure, getting a home playoff game is better than not, and maybe that’s enough. But whether you finish 2-4th, or 5th-7th, it doesn’t make much of a difference.
Two, the byes that the top seeds in each conference get...aren’t really that much of an advantage. It feels like one, but thanks to MLS having to negotiate around the November international break, it can be a poisoned chalice. That’s why they changed the playoff system a few years ago, to get around this break, splitting up the playoffs and doing away with two-legged formats. Both Colorado and New England will have three weeks off before playing their first playoff game, which borders on going rusty instead of getting rest. Some will say it gives them more time to heal from injuries to their players on that international break, and that’s probably worth considering… a little. But does it outweigh losing match fitness? Likely not.
I will give up the fight on soccer not really being a playoff sport, especially in single elimination. The games mean too much, teams get awfully cautious, yadda yadda yadda, though this doesn’t always affect MLS playoff games. They’ve had a tendency to be a bit bonkers. I also recognize that for an American audience, this is what they’re accustomed to. Additionally, with no relegation, not yet a boiling sense of excitement about making the CONCACAF Champions League, having a single-table, round-robin regular season and declaring a winner on points would lead to about 25 teams playing out the string come June. That won’t work. And with soon to be 28 teams, figuring out a schedule is nightmare enough.
So I just want to boil this down to a simple change.
And that is, in order for the lower-seeded team in any playoff game to advance, they have to beat the higher-seeded team. A draw goes to the home team, plain and simple (if you want to change this for the MLS Cup final, that’s cool, given its elevated status).
That makes the regular season have more meaning. Grabbing the No. 2 seed instead of settling for the No. 3 gains importance for a match in August or September, whereas otherwise it might be on the humdrum side. Home advantage will really mean something, other than your own fans and own beds and own routine, which is not nothing, I give you, but also can get overblown. It still allows for upsets and Cinderella runs, which we know the league loves and makes every fandom feel like they have a chance, but they’d really have to be earned. No team that barely squeaked into the playoffs on the last day can simply roll up to whatever No. 2 seed’s place, and try to hold out for a draw and nick a goal or get to penalties.
The downside, admittedly, is that the higher seeded teams will feel compelled to be more careful, knowing that a 0-0 draw takes them through. Maybe that’s balanced out by the lower-seeded team having to go for it, but then an early goal by the higher-seeded team could really end things. It’s to be considered. But it’s probably the same as the motivation now, just reversed, and the goal here is to make the regular season more meaningful for more teams.
As for the top seeds, that ring rust isn’t as pivotal if you only have to scrape together a draw after the huge break when you might be off the boil a bit. You can keep the real powder dry for the bigger fights down the road. No more having a season undone by one defensive mistake or an unrepeatable streak of penalties from some also-ran in the first round. Perhaps the idea of earning two draws to get to the final will leave some fans cold, understandably, but that right will have been earned over seven months and 34 games.
Another method that would work quite well is the Australian Rules Football method, where the bye takes place not in the first round, but in the second. Basically, this would involve expanding the playoffs from seven to eight teams per conference, which let’s face it, is going to happen soon enough anyway. In the first round, No. 1 plays No. 4, and No. 2 plays No. 3 at the top of each bracket. The winners of those move onto the conference semis, while the losers drop into the bottom half of the bracket where No. 5 plays No. 8, and No. 6 plays No. 7, with the winners of those taking on those who lost from the top half. The winners there face the resting winners of the top half of the bracket. Finishing in the top half of the conference means you either get a second chance, or you can skip a whole round. It doesn’t make every spot mean something, but getting into the top four of your conference carries much more weight.
MLS hasn’t shown much interest in weighting the regular season more, and seems to like the chaotic nature of its playoffs (which are more like what people think the NHL playoffs are, but really aren’t, as the chalk wins there more than you realize). But take the East this year, New England ran away with it, and they do get rewarded with a bye, but also have to overcome three weeks on the couch. Philadelphia, Nashville, NYCFC… they were all basically waiting around for the season to end and divvying up seeds with all the furor and passion of cleaning chores. The former system would have given them something to chase all the way to the end.
Anyway, I’ve said my peace. I’ll just sit back down and enjoy the silliness next week like everyone else.