The New MLS Playoff Format Is A Disaster In Waiting

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In its effort to continue to tweak every single thing imaginable, MLS announced on Monday that there will be a new playoff format starting in 2019. The league is doing away with the European-influenced two-legged playoffs in favor of a single-elimination tournament, akin to March Madness.

The new playoff format will also send an extra team to the playoffs from each conference, bringing the total number of postseason participants to 14, out of a total of 24 teams (after FC Cincinnati joins next season).


You can understand the league’s thinking here. Atlanta United just stomped its way to the MLS Cup in just its second season, with the help of a home-field advantage fueled by a rabid fanbase in a giant, bought-and-paid-for NFL stadium. Going to a single-elimination format will further boost the value of home-field advantage, as each game in the playoffs will be hosted by the team with the better regular-season record. The idea here is to add more value to the regular season, which currently doesn’t mean much, at least compared to the European leagues that MLS clearly wants to compete with in some ideal future. Because of the existence of the MLS Cup playoffs, the team with the most points at the end of the season earns nothing more than the Supporters’ Shield, a meaningless trophy when compared to, say, a Premier League Title.

The only thing that’s sure is that, by reducing each tie to a single match, MLS is making sure to value entertainment over actually figuring out which is the best team in a particular matchup. Given the randomness of soccer—as a low-scoring sport, one or two mistakes could decide an entire match—most cup competitions default to a two-legged format in order to better determine the better team. Sure, that doesn’t always work, but it’s more successful in weeding out pretenders than single elimination, which rewards randomness with upsets. Greece at the 2004 European Championship is the prime example of that; that team rode a befuddling defensive style and three straight 1-0 wins to the biggest shock in international soccer history.


Is it so bad to create more Greece moments, though? For a league that is finally getting respectable TV ratings after years of failing to capture a nationwide audience, it might be smart to capitalize on the randomness inherent in any single soccer match. It also might make teams more inclined to take the regular season seriously, because having a playoff game on your home field is a bigger advantage than, say, having the second leg at home in a home-and-away series.

The bigger problem is that, by adding a seventh team in each conference’s playoff bracket, MLS is also making it easier to make it to the tournament, when it should be making it significantly harder. No amount of home-field advantage will ever guarantee that a favorite wins, and reducing the amount of games makes it more likely that an underperforming team could hit a stroke of form that takes it all the way to the title, further lowering the regular season’s value.


Underdog stories are fun, but this new format will leave MLS much more likely to see a team make a run similar to the aforementioned Greek squad’s than one that resembles Leicester City’s shocking 2016 Premier League-winning campaign. The latter was unimpeachably legendary, whereas the former felt more like the unsatisfying result of soccer’s inherent randomness.

So, when some bullshit seventh seed parks the bus for four straight wins in the playoffs, you’ll get to see MLS commissioner Don Garber hand the MLS Cup to a team that definitely was not the best in a given year. Is that really better than giving it to Atlanta United, which was not only the best side in 2018 but also the league’s best story? This feels like another example of MLS throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, despite having a perfectly fine mural of shit already up there.