MLS playoff change is premature

By Ridge Mahoney

This can hardly be construed as a major misstep, but expanding the MLS playoffs to 12 teams at this juncture is a bad idea.

Competitiveness and balance are often cited as among league’s strong points, and both factors are products of increased pressure on teams to get points along the way during the regular season, which wasn’t the case for about the first decade of the league’s existence. Eight teams out of 10 reached the playoffs when the league kicked off in 1996, an absurdly high number that was widely ridiculed. Getting into the playoffs just didn’t require much in the way of performance and far too many regular-season games lacked that cutting edge of urgency and importance.

As more teams have entered the league, the playoff places have not kept pace, which does darken the postseason chances for a few teams in September and October but also ratchets up the intensity of games played. Wins are more valuable and defeats are more costly, which is an ideal recipe for compelling competition.

Wisely, MLS retained the eight-team limit on playoff teams as the league expanded, and didn’t add two playoff slots until the entry of Vancouver and Portland in 2011 boosted league membership to 18 teams. It also reverted to an intraconference format to determine postseason qualifiers and play out the rounds leading up to MLS Cup.

Whether or not a fifth-place team “deserved” a shot at reaching the championship game -- which hasn’t happened in three seasons -- probably didn’t affect discussions about expanding the playoff field. Now that a pair of sixth-place team will enter the field, has the league taken a step too far?

The rationale expressed by Commissioner Don Garber fell far short of justification. Basically, he said since the league would be expanding to 12 playoff teams once it reaches 24 teams, which at its current pace will occur well before the stated target year of 2020, it made sense to expand now rather than then.

Hah? If the league believes that dropping the cutoff line down a place and thus theoretically keep more contestants alive for the postseason scramble will crank up interest, it should say so. Justifying a change for 2015 by looking down the road is nonsensical. Surely, scheduling the final day of games to be played simultaneously and promoting a “whiparound” broadcast window needs as many teams as possible to be in the mix, and if that’s a major reason this change was made, so be it.

There’s no way the final day of MLS regular-season play can be as compelling as that of the Premier League, which NBC and its affiliated outlets covered extensively last May by carrying all 10 games live. When the MLS season concludes Oct. 25, the championship won’t be decided, nor will relegation places, the importance of which MLS cannot match. Up for grabs might be the Supporters’ Shield and maybe a playoff spot or two. Okay, fine.

There might be some value to showcasing a broader view of the league, for as national TV ratings indicate, there’s still a wide gap separating fans that follow certain teams avidly and those that pay attention to everything else. Establishing regular TV time slots -- on Friday nights and Sundays -- outside of the traditionally heavy Saturday schedules should offer ample opportunities to grow audiences that might otherwise remain untapped.

The playoff field with a 24-team league could consist of 14 teams or even 16, now that 12 of 20 will qualify. At least half the teams qualify for postseason play in the NHL and NBA, and that seems to be the ratio preferred by MLS rather than the more exclusive fields mandated by Major League Baseball (10 of 30) and National Football League (12 of 32).

So the league has decided that it’s better to widen the playoff pool in an effort to maintain interest rather than induce greater importance to late-season games with fewer postseason slots. Encouraging ratings for regular Friday and Sunday windows -- albeit after just two weekends -- could be an indicator that growing league-wide interest is translating into better TV ratings, which has been and will continue to be a vital component of the league’s viability.

I would have preferred to see a 2015 season with 20 teams fighting for 10 slots rather than 12. Chances are the competition will be fierce regardless, with the addition of two ambitious expansion teams to the Eastern Conference (New York City FC and Orlando City SC) as well as Houston and Sporting Kansas City -- which between them played in three straight MLS Cups as Eastern teams from 2011 to 2013 -- switching to the Western group.

The long-term effects of widening the playoff field at this point won’t be known for a few years. If the league stays at 12 postseason contestants as it expands to 24 teams, that will indicate a strong, healthy operation less dependent on watered-down competition to drum up interest.
16 comments about "MLS playoff change is premature".
  1. Matthew Desilva, March 19, 2015 at 9:13 a.m.

    I do not understand yet why we do not have the same system as other countries where there is one table and the top teams play CONCACAF and the bottom are relegated to USL Pro or whatever the next step would be.
    To me it makes sense that my local club, Lansing United of the NASL, can potentially move up the food chain and that this would have the effect of galvanizing soccer around the entire country.
    What really bothers me is the argument that "the richest teams will always win" Really?!? Like the Galaxy don't spend their way to titles already? The East/West division system is silly to begin with.
    I would really love to see a serious article in SA on the merits for and against a single table setup.

  2. R2 Dad, March 19, 2015 at 9:45 a.m.

    Too late Matthew, that "discussion" has already been made and ignored. The argument goes something like this: The small brain size of the average soccer- watching American prevents them from allowing anything foreign like Pro-Rel. Existing leagues (baseball, basketball, football) all have playoffs. Therefore, it's the only format that will be acceptable. Otherwise, brains might just start exploding around the nation and Dan Garber can't be held responsible for that. Supposedly playoffs keep more fans watching matches after the season has been completed, since parity gives many teams the chance--in theory--to get to the MLS Cup final. And since TV rating are the be-all and end-all metric, that's the best way to improve TV ratings and the contract behind it. In reality, playoffs do many good things for owners but few for fans. As mentioned in the article, many games show no urgency since it doesn't take much to just get into the playoffs. You see many teams start out poorly, with the only goal of making the playoffs. The Supports Shield doesn't count; neither does the CCL. Just make the playoffs and from there who knows. The single entity setup was created to ensure new stadiums were built and owners were financially stable. This will lead to a league of 30 teams (like the NBA and MLB) with 20 playoff slots with matches no one will watch. Perhaps the death of TV will change this calculus, but for now we're stuck with boring playoffs.

  3. Mike Jacome, March 19, 2015 at 11:58 a.m.

    Many teams have a 40% decrease attendance during the playoffs that during regular season. That is a big signal than playoffs are not attractive in MLS. Unfortunately while seattle keep averaging 41,000 for their playoff attendance MLS would see playoffs as profitable.

  4. Raymond Weigand, March 19, 2015 at 12:18 p.m.

    Matthew: MLS will have to deal with USA soccer fans going on strike (or staying on strike) ... The EPL teams will probably be playing even more games in the USA this summer and they will continue to fill the big venues - Rose Bowl / Univ of Michigan ... etc. MU - as demonstrated by their new sponsorship contracts with Adidas and Chevy is probably worth more than the entire MLS. The USA ownership group of MU is probably feeling pretty good with their competitive business model.

  5. Jeffrey Organ, March 19, 2015 at 12:25 p.m.

    Sorry but I respectfully disagree.
    First, I personally am done with the promotion/relegation discussion. Don Garber has essentially said it will not happen under his watch for one simple reason....economics. Recent owners are paying substantial expansion fees to join the single entity league. There is absolutely no way you call tell the owners of NYCFC, for example, that they could be relegated in their expansion season after paying $100 million to join the league (or in the future for that matter). There is also no logical league to have promotion/relegation with, but that seems to be a fact that is conveniently overlooked. USL is on a path to have half its league be MLS2 sides. Aside from being a small and barely relevant league, NASL has played a cynical cat and mouse game when asked about a future chance to implement prom/rel with MLS. I believe a lot of new NASL ownership views their investment as a chance, long term, to get into MLS without expansion fees, which most of them can't afford in any event. Do you think the MLS owners are going to fall for this? As an MLS season ticket holder, I personally want no part of promotion/relegation and believe this feeling is shared by others like me with real skin in the game. Please let's move on from this subject.
    As for the playoffs, this is one apparently small-brained fan (a follower of soccer on a worldwide basis since the 1970's) who has attended numerous playoff games and consider them anything but boring. I resent the implication that just because something is "foreign" it is better for a domestic soccer league in the U.S. Soccer was always going to develop differently in the U.S. than in other countries. There are concepts that will work here that don't fit some preconceived notion of what is right by elitists. Playoffs happen to be one of those concepts and for reasons other than brains exploding. Also, why must we have a single table and who cares anyway. The league is clearly going to consist of at least 30 teams in the future and there is no possible way the league will ever be able to support the 58 game schedule a single table league would necessitate.
    Finally, soccer is going to become a viable worldwide league based on gaining the support of new fans who could care less how the LaLiga, EPL or Bulgarian domestic leagues are structured. Any efforts the league has made to gain the support of Euro snobs has been derided over and over again because nothing is good enough for them. I for one support the change MLS seems to have made to ignore these types. I hope this continues.

  6. Eric R., March 19, 2015 at 1:57 p.m.

    Article: Generally agree on all points. The playoffs need to have fewer teams. Too many teams suggests that making it into the playoffs means very little. I don't know why they are trying to emulate this about EPL; the leagues' structures are incompatible.

    Jeffrey: I generally agree with all your comments. I think there are similarities in the economic chasms though between MLS and NASL vs EPL and Championship.

    Mike: That's because a lot of people can't make mid-week games. Watch a baseball game on a Wednesday and see how it goes.

  7. Raymond Weigand, March 19, 2015 at 2:07 p.m.

    Jeffrey. Probably it's just me - but your post makes some strong points: A reminder of the $100mm barrier to entry ... promoting the USL as a league of MLS2 sides...promoting the NASL as a 'small and barely relevant league' ...From this perspective ... it seems a little like the pot calling out to the kettle and all that timeless good stuff.

  8. Glenn Auve, March 19, 2015 at 6:54 p.m.

    I agree that promotion/relegation doesn't make sense given the overall structure of MLS and the other leagues. And also the fact that most NASL and USL teams' facilities are several levels below MLS.

    But that doesn't mean we can't have a balanced schedule with the league winner being fairly determined. Playoffs aren't really necessary. And they extend the season by two months. Use that time to play out the home-and-away schedule.

    Having so many teams make the playoffs renders the regular season basically meaningless.

  9. Zoe Willet, March 21, 2015 at 12:33 a.m.

    I agree with Matthew. Play-offs are idiotic. Maybe NASL and USL aren't at the correct level presently, but surely that could be arranged. It's not that play-off games are boring, rather they are unfair, giving a desultory team a chance to win it all. So what if other American leagues have play-offs- soccer is more intelligent than any of them. (And NHL needs to pay taxes!) A single table makes more sense than teams switching back and forth between divisions.

  10. Andrzej Kowalski, March 22, 2015 at 6:56 p.m.

    MlS needs system with relegation without relegation and playoffs without playoffs .

  11. Andrzej Kowalski, March 22, 2015 at 7:10 p.m.

    Divide mls into MLS1 top 10 teams and mls 2 buttom 10 teams. Two times per year after half of season relegate buttom 5 teams from MLS1 to MlS2 and promote 5 top teams from MLS2 to MLS1.In Mls cup play winner of spring agains winner of fall. In this system bottom teams will play more games.

  12. Kent James, March 23, 2015 at 2:40 p.m.

    I like promotion/relegation for the value it puts on all games (especially those fighting relegation), but for the reasons Jeffrey lays out (primarily money), it's not possible for a while (until the lower leagues begin to catch up to the MLS, at least in terms of facilities and local support). But I agree with the sentiment expressed in the article; too many playoff games devalue the regular season (as well as each post season game). Playoff games should be special, not a continuation of the regular season by other means. So the MLS should dramatically reduce the number of playoff games; why not eliminate the playoffs, and go straight to the championship (with either the winner of each division playing, or, my preference, having a single table with the top 2 teams playing, with the first place team getting the home field advantage)? Or slightly less radical, the top 4 teams in a playoff. That way the playoffs/championship would be less likely to be played in bad weather. Of course, there would be fewer games, so less money, so that's unlikely to happen...but we should definitely move in that direction.

  13. Raymond Weigand, March 23, 2015 at 3:16 p.m.

    Andrzej - creative thinking on your part, however, I think the scheduling would be a challenge. Probably you would have a lot of folks upset with you (season ticket holders) if the tickets for the 2nd half of the season were all "TBD" for date and time and opponent.

  14. Raymond Weigand, March 23, 2015 at 3:25 p.m.

    Kent ... I wouldn't assume too much. As the U.S. Open Cup is a recurring reminder that on any given day - any team can win. (and it's not always the team with the most money) Talent and teamwork coming together for a unified goal of getting that one 'big shot' at recognition ... even if it was only two teams up/down ... it provides an opportunity to root for the under dog ... even Celtic had a miracle game against Barcelona in 2012 ... brought their fans to tears.

  15. Raymond Weigand, March 23, 2015 at 3:31 p.m.

    Oh ... from the Guardian ... "No Celtic player earns more than £1.5m a year as a basic wage; Barcelona's average annual salary is reported to be about £5m (per player). Plenty of teams that have a total wage requirement that is less than the highest paid player in Seattle. Plenty of teams will want that one chance to give Seattle all they can handle ... just look to San Jose for the brilliant performance that an extra motivator can have on game day.

  16. Kent James, March 24, 2015 at 11:47 a.m.

    Raymond, I was not referring to the disparities in salaries (where I think the MLS has a much more equal salary structure than most leagues), but rather the point Jeffrey made about no investors wanting to purchase a franchise for $100 million and then be relegated (I'd always considered the investment in the stadiums to be a barrier, but hadn't even considered the franchise fee) as a pretty firm barrier for promotion/relegation. I agree that lower salaried teams do have an extra incentive to play well against high paid ones, but I think the proper venue for that is the open cup. I think because of the relative parity within the league, many more teams have a real shot at winning the MLS title than in most other leagues, where the big teams are so dominant (but I have to confess, I do like watching those big teams...the Real Madrid/Barcelona match was played at such an exquisite level...).

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