By Michael King
As Major League Soccer enjoys the exposure surrounding the Colorado’s victory in Sunday’s MLS Cup, questions remain regarding the future of the league’s playoff structure.
Commissioner Don Garber announced during halftime of the final that the league would increase the number of playoff spots to 10, a two-team expansion over the current system.
However, he’s yet to announce plans for the league’s playoff format. With the league adding two teams next season (the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps), and the possibility of more expansion in the coming years, Garber believes it’s the appropriate time to reevaluate the league’s playoff structure.
“We are basically telling our fans that we have a goal and a vision to be one of the top soccer leagues in the world,” Garber said during halftime of the Cup Final on ESPN. “As we are thinking about our playoff format, our competition calendar, it makes sense for us to start really digging into whether or not this makes sense. We have been thinking about it for the last year, and it certainly is a message we want to say to the international soccer community: We are going to get closer to the way the rest of the world plays.”
The impetus is clear. More playoffs teams seemingly leads to more games and more revenue for the league. Evidently, Garber plans to risk the league’s competitive integrity through a vain attempt to increase playoff excitement and interest.
The current playoff format pits the top four teams from each league in a knock-out style competition, with the winner’s of the East and West playing each other in the single-game Cup final. It’s the same format that the league’s employed since its inception in 1996.
The only change has been the percentage of teams making the playoffs. In the early years of the MLS, eight of 10 teams qualified for the playoffs. That’s an astounding 28 games just to eliminate two teams.
Naturally, the MLS does not want to revert back to anything associated with such mediocrity. But consider just how different the league’s format is compared with the rest of the world.
For example, domestic soccer leagues in Europe consist solely of a regular season. In the English Premier League, every team plays each other twice per year and the club with the most points is crowned champion. The value of this system is derived through its equity and the importance it places on every fixture.
It’s unlikely that fans in the United States would support a league without playoffs. American fans have grown accustomed to arduous, and arguably meaningless, regular seasons followed by an almost equally long playoff. Yet, it’s clear that fans tolerate such a long period of meaningless games waiting for the excitement associated with the prospect of season-ending elimination in the playoffs.
Even in Europe this format has grown in popularity. With UEFA’s Champions League now more prestigious than most domestic leagues, its combination group and knock-out stage structure is extremely popular. And it probably goes without saying that the world’s most watched sporting competition, the World Cup, keeps the same format.
For the MLS, the question becomes: should the league favour competitive fairness or target fan excitement?
It’s certainly not in the best interest of the MLS to move toward a regular season-only format. However, the league is moving in the wrong direction. Garber should consider eliminating playoff spots, rather than over-expand and risk reduced excitement.
Major League Baseball probably offers the best model for an MLS playoff structure. This league offers a lengthy regular season which eliminates about 75 percent of its teams. The eight remaining clubs then battle through a secession of three elimination series to determine the champion.
This model maintains the integrity of the regular season as only the best teams can qualify for the playoffs. Yet any of the eight teams can string a series of wins together and win the championship. In this way, the regular season remains meaningful with a playoff format maximized for excitement.
With the decision forthcoming, many have speculated how the league will react. Some argue that a league featuring one conference with the 10 top teams making the playoffs is the most equitable and straightforward. They reason that a sport which is trying to grow and educate fans needs a fair and simple playoff system.
Others believe that the MLS should move toward a divisional format much like other sports in the United States. Modelling after the successful leagues, they argue, is the proper way for the MLS. This prospect seems increasingly possible in the context of the league’s impending expansion in 2011 and 2012 (Montreal).
Regardless of the many options presented to Garber, he must be sure to weigh the prospect of removing the incentive from games during the regular season for a likely small return in playoff excitement. Subtle changes like this affect how a league is perceived, especially one that is striving for legitimacy among other powerful North American professional sports.
With the MLS having made great strides in recent years in terms of popularity, quality of play, and the overall game experience, it would be a shame for the league stifle this momentum and move to a competition format that’s neither fair nor overly exciting.
Michael King is a contributing writer for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.