New MLS playoff format comes with risks worth taking

[MY VIEW] By expanding and revising the playoffs, MLS is taking a few risky steps, and might indeed stub its toes. I think it’s worth a shot.

Not that I have any alternative in the actual operation, but there’s logic behind the moves the league has made, and thus I’ll sit back and see how it plays out. Some of it makes sense.

Attendances will probably suffer, since six of the 10 postseason games leading up to MLS Cup will be played midweek. The belief of MLS commissioner Don Garber and the Board of Directors that most of its teams can sell tickets for big games on short notice – which is one rationale for proposing that the highest-seeded playoff survivor host MLS Cup rather than staging the final at a pre-designated site, as is currently done – will be severely tested in the next few weeks.

For the wild-card games this week (New York at Dallas, Columbus at Colorado) the home teams will have just a few days to build crowds, which neither has shown an ability to do. Again, the league has “punished” the wild-card teams by imposing more difficult circumstances than the higher-seeded finishers.

For the second legs of the conference finals next week, Los Angeles, Seattle, Sporting Kansas City and Houston will have much more time to promote. That, too, is a possible advantage, the longer period of time to sell tickets, as well as sitting out the midweek battles doled out to the wild cards.

The increase in playoff teams from eight to 10 can increase chances that the conference champions will advance to the final. (From 2008 to 2010, two have done so – the 2008 champion Crew, and 2009 losing finalist Galaxy).  Call the new plan addition by attrition, at least in theory.

By winning the Western and Eastern Conferences, respectively, Los Angeles and Kansas City will this weekend play wild-card teams coming off tough games Wednesday/Thursday. The wild-card teams host the first game, but playing a top team on short rest will mitigate that homefield advantage. To reach MLS Cup, wild-card teams must play four games; the other six qualifiers can’t play more than three. And this year the schedule is a killer.

The compressed playoff “season” – 12 postseason games will be played in the 12-day window from Wednesday to Nov. 6 leading up to MLS Cup Nov. 20 – isn’t ideal. MLS had no attractive option; either the playoffs would have to be wrapped up prior to the November FIFA dates, or MLS would have to stage the conference finals, with a shot at the title at stake, on Nov. 12-13, smack in the middle of the double FIFA fixtures.

Either way, the league would get slammed, and so it chose what it believed to be the lesser of several evils, so that at least its teams would not lose players to international duty for its most important games of the season. And, of course, there will be outrage and disdain that playoffs exist at all, since most soccer leagues – not all of them – don’t bother with a postseason knockout tournament to decide its champion.

In America, like it or not, the season comes down to a final series, or one final game. I know they are a minority, and hopefully a tiny one at that, but a strident few fans still question the very existence of playoffs.

Pointing out the tradition of playoffs in American sports leagues – which includes the old North American Soccer League for most of its existence – sways them not, nor does the sacred status attained by events like the World Series, NBA and NHL finals, and that unofficial holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. Soccer, too, has its climactic events – World Cup final, Olympic gold-medal match, Champions League final, etc. – etched in history.

This is not cited to compare MLS Cup to those much older and grander competitions, but instead to illustrate a stark fact: there is no way, none, zero, nada chance any American TV network would consider televising a pro sports league that ended with the final regular season game. And without TV and its related marketing, advertising, sponsorship, promotion, etc. – there’s no MLS.

During the formation of MLS, founder Alan Rothenberg and his executives would have been laughed out of every boardroom if their sales pitch peaked with: “And then, to crown the champion, rather than have any fluky playoffs or other dramatic, exciting, head-to-head showdowns by which only the winner survives and the loser is left with a heartbreaking defeat, a la the Super Bowl or the World Cup final, for the team in first place at the end of the regular season, it’s over! How neat and tidy is that?!”

Once the crickets in the room had stopped chirping, an exec would have said, “Sounds great. Let us know how it works out.”

Are there flaws, quirks, conflicts to this playoff system? Yup. Some believe that FC Dallas has gamed the system to avoid finishing third in the Western Conference and thus be paired with Seattle in the conference semifinals. It took a weakened squad to San Jose and the Quakes rumbled, 4-2. A win at Buck Shaw would have pushed FCD past RSL into third place.

Instead, FCD gets a home game with New York, which “should” be an easier assignment. Yet knockout games can be tricky, and given FCD’s tepid form of late, the Red Bulls won’t lack for confidence of pulling the upset, just as they did in 2008 by reaching MLS Cup as the lowest seed.

If NYRB does advance, it would be to face the Galaxy as the lowest-seeded wild-card survivor, and would entail cross-country trips for both teams on a punishing schedule: weekend (Oct. 29-30), then midweek (Nov. 2-3). If Dallas wins, it would cross over to play Eastern Conference champion Kansas City, with Los Angeles instead meeting the survivor of the other wild-card series between Colorado and Columbus.

The top two teams, Seattle and the Galaxy, can’t meet in MLS Cup. This is unfortunate, but occasionally occurs in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, too. A different seeding procedure can fix this flaw. Maybe next year, after 2011 is in the books.

3 comments about "New MLS playoff format comes with risks worth taking".
  1. beautiful game, October 24, 2011 at 9:55 a.m.

    Definitely the best seed should play the final in their home stadium, what's the season for if not to reward the top team...real soccer fans will attend no matter how short the notice.

  2. Ballen In seattle, October 24, 2011 at 11:38 a.m.

    My biggest problem is in the second round. Higher seeded teams are "rewarded" with mid week home games. It seems that either both teams play mid week, both play weekend, or higher seeded team gets luxury of having home weekend game for the chance to draw more fans.

  3. Eric Gorski, October 24, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.

    On the contrary: The Rapids did a tremendous job selling tickets on short notice last year. The Eastern Conference Final drew 17,779 on a Saturday night - in 32 degree weather. A midweek wild card game a day after a snow storm will be a tougher sell.

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