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
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
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
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
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.