[MLS] Major League Soccer will increase its allotment of playoff teams from eight to 10 next season, when another round of expansion adds Portland and Vancouver as the 17th and 18th teams.
At a press conference prior to the kickoff of MLS Cup between Colorado and FC Dallas, Commissioner Don Garber confirmed that the playoff field will be expanded. Precisely how those additional teams will be jiggered into the conference alignment and postseason format has yet to be determined.
The most likely setup is that the top three teams in the two conferences will earn automatic bids, and the next two finishers in each conference playing off for spots in the final eight. But other formulas are being discussed and Garber emphasized the number and criteria regarding wild-card teams is undecided.
“The knockout games will occur in the conferences,” said Garber. “What hasn’t been finalized yet is if we’re going to have a single-game knockout, or like we had this year with the conferences games leading up to the [conference] championship game played as a home-and-away series.”
In the past three seasons the league has been ridiculed for its adherence to declaring playoff conference champions that “crossed over” from the opposite conference on the basis of standings points, not conference placing, to determine lower-seeded teams. Six of the eight playoff qualifiers this year emerged from the Western Conference, including both finalists, though Colorado emerged from the Eastern bracket. It defeated Columbus, 3-2, on aggregate in the first round, and then beat another Western team, San Jose, in the Eastern Conference final. San Jose had advanced by topping the Eastern Conference regular-season champion, New York, in the first round.
Last year, Real Salt Lake finished fifth in the West yet earned the eighth playoff seed on overall points. It won the Eastern Conference title by beating Columbus and Chicago and captured the league crown by knocking off the Western Conference winner, Los Angeles. In 2008, New York finished fifth in the East to take the No. 8 overall seed, and defeated Real Salt Lake and Houston to earn the Western Conference slot in the final, which it lost, 3-1, to Columbus.
Garber reiterated that the 18 teams will be split into two conferences; with Vancouver and Portland destined to be placed in the Western group, one current Western team will move to the other conference. That team, said Garber, has yet to be determined.
The 18 teams will play a balanced, 34-game schedule, beginning the third week of March.
“That is something we spent a lot of time thinking about,” said Garber of the Board of Governors, for now, deciding against an unbalanced schedule. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to have one when we have 19 teams and I certainly don’t know if we’ll be able to have one when we have 20 teams without really, really expanding the number of games that we play.”
The commissioner also said that the Board of Governors has not yet determined if next year’s championship game will be staged at a neutral site, as has been the case since the league began operations in 1996, or will be hosted by the highest surviving seed.
Looking further down the road, Garber said the league is conducting a feasibility study of shifting to a late-summer/late-spring calendar, as is played in Europe and other parts of the world.
“I’ve been in this job now for 10 years and I don’t know if three years ago I ever would have thought that, never mind 10 years,” said Garber. “We’ve got to take the steps to figure it out.
“This game today will be a pretty good test. If we were to change to the international calendar, this would be a regular-season game. Today, it’s our championship, so we’re going through that analysis. We are working with our clubs to see how they would be affected.”