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MLS Long Playoff Format Needs Quick Fix

Despite being a diehard MLS fan, I’ve criticized the league in the past when I thought it was shirking its duties to its teams and fans. Today I’ve got a new bone of contention to pick with Commissioner Garber and Co.: the playoff format.

The current format lets in far too many teams (8 of 14) and drags on way too long. Most pro soccer leagues don’t even have playoffs, so international players in MLS often don’t even grasp the importance of the games. To them, the Supporters Shield race that unfolds over 30 games should be the focus, not who can win a couple of games at the end of the season.

I like the playoffs though. I’m American, after all, and we like things to be neatly wrapped up in a title game. Where’s the fun in a league without playoffs? Even if it comes down to the final week, which is rare nowadays, the two teams challenging for the top spot are rarely playing each other. I am not asking MLS to do away with the playoffs, I just want MLS to make a few changes.

For instance, why not let only 6 teams in instead of 8. Right now, three teams from each division get in, plus two wild cards. I say, only let the top two teams in each division in, and then take the next two teams with the highest point totals. That way, a mediocre 8-10-6 team like Chivas USA (who would make the playoffs if the season ended today), would be out.

Also, if there’s six teams, the top two teams in each division could have a bye straight into the conference finals. They’ve worked hard over the course of the season to get to the top of their divisions and they should get a break come playoff time to reward their regular season success.

Then each of the teams that got second in their division would play one home game (not a home/away format, which just drags out the process) against one of the wild card teams, and the winner of that game would then take on the division champions. The winners of the conference championships would then meet at the finals. It would be over a lot sooner, less crappy teams would make it, and fans and players would likely rejoice.

Fat chance of that ever happening though. The more games, the more money for MLS. So, 8 teams will get in and the conference semi-final home/away format will stay. Well, at least until the conference finals and cup championships, which are decided by one game (how does that make any sense, shouldn’t the more important games be decided by aggregate?).

The worst part of the current system now though is not the length, but the fact that it can be unfair.

How so? Well, strangely, the team that picks up the second wild card spot may, in fact, have an advantage over the first wild card team. Here’s why:

Pursuant to MLS rules, if more than four teams make it to the playoffs from one conference (which will almost certainly happen this year in the East), the lower seeded wild card team (i.e., the one that got fifth in the division) gets to move to the other conference for the playoffs.

So, if the season ended today, DC, who is in fifth in the East and in the second wild card position, would play in the Western Division’s post-season race with Chivas USA, Salt Lake and Houston. Not that tough a draw. 

Meanwhile, New York, the fourth place finisher in the East and the first wild card seed, would have to stay in the East with the likes of Chicago, New England and Columbus. That doesn’t sound so fair.

In fact, it almost would give a team some motivation to lose a game late in the season if it would put them in the second, rather than first, wild card position.

This year, I’d like my chances better in the West if I were DC (or anyone else). It’s strange that the second wild card team would get a better draw than the first wild card seed, but we’re talking about MLS here so strange is really not that unusual.

I don’t expect the playoff format to change, which is fine, I’m just blowing off a little steam here. After more expansion, the eight team format will make more sense. But I’d still like to see MLS tinker with those wild card rules. It’s not fair that the lower seeded wild card team would get to switch to the weaker division while the first wild card team has to take on the likely Supporters Shield winner.

But, I guess if, as they say, life isn’t fair, why should the MLS playoff format be?