An expanded playoff structure would have its ups and downs

One of the main struggles fans of the MLS playoffs have is the multitude of changes that the format has undergone — just when you think it might be starting to stabilize, along comes more alterations to shake the foundation and cause another stir.

Over the weekend, Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus reported that MLS has decided to expand the playoff structure to 12 teams, according to his sources. And in his State of the League address on Tuesday, commissioner Don Garber acknowledged that the league will recommend making such a change when the Board of Governors meets this weekend before Sunday’s MLS Cup final.

This is not a big surprise.

Mind you, most observers were hoping this would happen after the league was closer to its 24-team goal by 2020. The percentage of teams making the playoffs would have dropped from 53 percent to 50 percent with the additions of Orlando City and New York City in 2014 (coupled with the demise of Chivas USA), if the total stayed at 10.

Instead, expansion to a 12-team playoff format would take things in the opposite direction (60 percent). Is this what the league really needs?

Remember Manaus?

You will have a tough time finding someone who is absolutely, 100 percent content with the MLS playoff format at any moment in time. The nature off the sport of soccer in America brings to mind the vivid image from this summer’s World Cup.

If you watched the United States play Ghana in Manaus to start the 2014 World Cup, you may remember the image of the dark Rio Negro waters meeting the muddy Amazon River. The waters use the same channel, but remain separated by their temperature and constituents for miles.

American soccer continues to try to swirl together international football (where league tables matter most) with the American sports model (where the playoffs are the pinnacle).

We’re still quite a ways downstream without much homogeneity, as evidenced by the way MLS continues to tinker with the system. It’s not failing, mind you, and eventually these two very different ideals will acclimate to each other. Until then, changes are to be expected, trying to find the right balance of both.

More teams, more money, more intrigue

You can’t blame MLS for going back to the well for more playoff teams. With a new television contract, playoff soccer is clearly where the league gets most of its prime airtime.

According to Straus’s source, the format would look more like the NFL playoffs. For each conference:

  • The top 2 seeds would earn a 1st round bye, and
  • The 3rd seed would host the 6th seed, while the 4th seed would host the 5th. These would be “wild card” style games.

As with any change, there will be some pros and cons.

  • More single elimination. Single elimination is great television. Look at the NFL playoffs and the NCAA basketball tournaments for evidence.
  • Table standing matters more. Regular season success would inherit a little more gravity – only the top two teams would get the benefit of rest before their first playoff game.
  • Local effects. Two more teams get to use the “playoff appearance” card in their off-season marketing efforts. It also prolongs the playoff chase for teams that previously may be eliminated earlier.
  • Quality of soccer. Is a 6th seed (out of 10) deserving of the opportunity to play for a title? In the NFL, with a short, severely unbalanced schedule, a 6th seed (out of 16 teams) can actually be pretty good.
  • Still little home-field advantage. Because MLS would not be moving away from 2-legged matches in the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds see little benefit besides that play-in avoidance.
Suggestions to improve

No playoff system is going to be perfect, and a 12-team (out of 20) format isn’t either. Having said that, it’s not always good to pan something without offering alternatives. So here goes my two suggestions:

  1. Get rid of the 2-legged matches. The proposed structure has gotten closer and closer to the NFL system, and might as well move the whole way. The public understands and accepts the NFL system, and might provide a bridge. It instantly restores home-field advantage, as well as shortens the playoff season. The league is unlikely to do this though, because it would half the gate receipts from those rounds.
  2. Open it up to all teams. I have had a pet system I’ve been proposing for awhile now. Split it into two different tournaments:
    • The regular season – Winner earns the Supporters Shield
    • MLS Cup Playoffs – a League Cup-style tournament, conducted after the regular season.
    • This would give teams that would have been out of the running for the playoffs a chance to get their fans back involved.

As I said before, the reality is that no playoff format will ever be flawless. Regardless of that, the best path forward would be for MLS to settle upon a structure and leave it alone. Give it the time to gain general acceptance, and stick with it. If it’s 12 teams, keep it that way even after the league expands to 24.



  1. Good read Earl.
    I have to say, without question IMO the idea of a team receiving a bye is underwhelming to me. While many would argue differently, I find it to be a decided disadvantage to sit and not play during a time when rhythm and momentum are really important. I agree with your point above, looks to me like american football to me with MLS desperate to hook its wagon to NFL playoff standards.
    I’ve thought for awhile myself about an idea similar to your #2 point above and like the merits. To me the Supporters Shield would carry more weight. Course if the league expands to ’68’ teams the Shield would be an impossibility for most clubs forever. Pardon the sarcasm.

  2. Why couldn’t they have made this change for the 2014 season? Then we’d be calling the Union’s year a success …

  3. I think more playoff teams would help get more people interested in their local clubs. It’s definitely worked for the NBA. I agree that the two-leg system should just be done away with. Single elimination, team with best record gets home field.

    Only thing I’d like changed somewhat is the conference title coming from the playoffs. I’d like to see the teams at the top of their table recognized as champs of their respective conferences (DC gets Eastern Conference title this year), however, one of those winners will always have a certain redundancy with the Supporters Shield. Not sure how to solve that, but I feel like the MLS cup should be the only piece of silverware available in the playoffs.

    The thing is — yes: Americans like their playoffs. Best way to appeal to casual “fans.” Though, in Philadelphia, I don’t think the Union would break onto local sports radio even if they were in the final game for the MLS cup.

    • Just be prepared to have teams with a losing record in the playoffs, Just like the NBA.

      • Yeah, that kind of sucks. NBA playoffs have become pretty dull. I used to be a big fan.

        On the other hand, I think the playoffs would have benefitted by having Philly and Portland in them this year (all fandom aside). They might have won a game or two against a higher seed.

      • I kind of disagree. Having Portland in would have been nice but Columbus was the first in line of the the meh teams in the East. The only thing that having Portland and the Union in the playoffs would be to prolong them.
        If you make the playoffs long enough it kind of fans of the teams not involved are more likely to lose interest

  4. Ed, I like your second idea a lot. I’ve floated this idea around in my head before. Since the thought of playoffs can be a polarizing subject, call the Supporter’s Shield winner the “league champion” and turn the playoffs into a true knockout-style cup tournament. I would keep the 12-team tournament, make the knockout, conference semis and final single game, with the conference finals still a 2-legged series. The winner of the tournament would be the “MLS Cup Champion”, and this would basically become an MLS-Only Cup. It’s the best of both worlds.

  5. In your format, the MLS Cup becomes the MLS equivalent of the FA League Cup. I think that’s a good idea. 12 teams get byes the first round and the other 8 slug it out to get to 16.
    One slight issue with the article, though. Didn’t the US play Portugal in Manaus rather than Ghana?

    • I’d be fine with that. I like the playoffs, like the Open Cup it adds a sense of urgency. But at the same time the team who has the most points at the end of 34 games deserves to be recognized too. If it’s approached like a Cup, it doesn’t diminish the regular season, but also rewards success over 34 games with home field.

    • Yes, game two was in Manaus. The Ghana game was in Natal I believe. Either way, a nice image.

  6. If MLS adds more teams, it will resemble the NHL. Not just in the high percentage of teams that make it to the playoffs, but the playoffs taking almost as long as the regular season. They have already dragged this year’s playoffs on too long, I shudder to think what another set of games would add to the timeline.
    Or, it could be that I’m just bitter the Union are taking an early vacation before starting their spring training in 2015.

    • @PigeonFudge says:

      The playoffs would be the same length as now. 2 extra knockout games would be played on the same days as they did this year.

  7. old soccer coach says:

    I like the idea of a postseason league wide cup competition. Call the regular season champion the “Champions” though. You would come close to reconciling the philosophical conflict between a season-long contest emphasizing sustained achievement and rewarding a team that improves greatly over the course of time and is playing well at the end of the season. Seeding is the final season table, single elimination at the home of the higher seed, the best four records have first round byes. Call is the Next Season’ s Crystal Ball.

  8. i like separating Supporters Shield from the MLS cup. if your team is junk early and can’t get the SS, you can play for the cup.

    i see sports tradition giving way to new revenue opportunities. i’d rather see ideas like this proposed than adding more teams to an already inconsistent, bloated level. it’s a more attainable reality than pro/rel.

    – if no one has read it, the NBA will play a tournament during the regular season. this will happen soon, maybe a couple seasons from this one.

    – It was radical when the NHL let players compete in the olympics midseason. that is only every 4 years. the fans and players love it but oddly the league threatens to take it away for losing an All Star Game and the pains of a work stoppage with a condensed schedule.

  9. John O'Donnell says:

    I think ten teams are enough for now. If the league was to grow beyond 24 teams than maybe 12 would be okay. This year has shown that the knockout rounds haven’t been quite as successful as the last round has in terms of attendance and TV ratings. I think they should stick to this format at least until the league is done expanding (If that will ever happen) to 24 teams.

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