At the conclusion of the 2018 season, Major League Soccer (MLS) took the much needed step of working to fix their often criticized playoff format that the league uses to crown a champion. (MLS remains one of the only soccer leagues around the world that even has a playoff).
Let’s have a look at the system that was used in 2018 to crown eventual champion Atlanta United:
In the old playoff format, 12 of the league’s 23 teams advance to the playoff, with the top two seeds in each conference receiving a first-round bye.
The first round of the playoffs was a single game, with the conference semifinal and conference final moving to a two game home and home for each team. The winner is determined on aggregate scoring in these rounds – with away goals being weighted heavier. The MLS Cup Final then returned to the single game format to finish the playoffs.
The old system was confusing in its inconsistencies, having some rounds be a single game, and others a home and home.
The issue with the home and home (and ultimately the reason the league revisited the format) was that it actually can provide an advantage to the lower-seeded team. The lower-seeded team gets to play the first game at their home stadium (often producing good results in front of home fans) and also knows exactly what result they need in the second leg to advance. Leading to many a team PARKING THE BUS to advance through.
The secondary problem with the format and having so many rounds of home and home, was that it was taking entirely too long to complete. With an international break mixed in, the playoffs stretched from October to mid-December in the old format.
So what did the league come up with to fix these problems? Here we are:
An all single elimination tournament – expanding the playoff field to 14 teams. (The league will be at 24 clubs in 2019, meaning nearly 60% of the league will make the playoffs).
What the new single elimination format is going to lead to is even more randomness in the results. In a single game an entire season’s worth of hard work can be undone in 90 minutes. A team will play 34 games, could be many points ahead of their playoff opponent in the final table, and can now be sent home in no time. Expect teams to play as such, with weaker teams uglying up the game to survive and advance.
With only one bye in each conference in the new format, you could be looking at with 60+ points in the table have no reward for their hard work. (For example, 2018 Champions – Atlanta United, would have been the #2 seed in the Western Conference and received no bye.)
One thing the new format did get right is that it will conclude before the final International Break of the year, removing the awkward two weeks off between Conference Finals and MLS Cup. This was a problem and I am glad to see they addressed it.
I still don’t feel the new system determines a champion in the best way possible and will most likely let very average teams have a shot at the title. (In 2018, for example, the LA Galaxy would have made the playoffs while managing to win only won more game than they lost)
A better proposal (keeping in mind that these things will never happen, because like all sports leagues $$$ is all that really matters):
- Shorten the regular season. Attendance at games is already an issue at many stadiums (despite what you see from the few clubs the league props up – Atlanta, Minnesota, Seattle etc. These few clubs help bring up the league average as well). Less games means each is more of an event – ask the NFL.
- Less teams in the playoffs. Can we please make this somewhat exclusive? 8 teams should make the playoffs, 4 from each conference – making for only 33% of the league, and a nice even bracket.
- The previously mentioned shorter season will allow you the time to keep the home-home format for each round of the playoffs, removing the flukes of one-game results.
- No byes are needed. With only the top 4 clubs from each conference making the playoffs you can go straight into #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3 in each conference. The winners would also play a home-home for the conference final.
- The top-seed gets to select whether they want to play at home or on the road first. This allows the top seed to dictate how they want the round to go and rewards them for their higher seeding. (My guess is that most would actually pick to play at home first).
- (I would even be fine with single-elimination all the way through if only 8 teams made the playoffs. The top 4 from each conference would all be worthy of winning the title for their work in the regular season)
- MLS Cup remains a one game event.
While we are changing things, we should just move the whole MLS season to align with the rest of the world (August-May), but that is a conversation for another day.
Playoff formats are often debated, but with an opportunity for improvement, I feel as though MLS missed on this one.
Image sources: Atlanta United – USA Today; Playoff brackets -MLSsoccer.com