Commentary / MLS / Union

The MLS playoffs are American and cruel

Photo: Rob Simmons

Take a second to think about the 2019 Philadelphia Union. A club-record 55 points. A club-record 16 wins and a best-ever 5th overall finish in the race for the Supporter’s Shield. Eleven losses is the second fewest in club history.

This team spent weeks and weeks at No. 1 in the Eastern Conference and got results against the best squads in the league. Before the playoffs, it’s very easy to argue that this is the best Union team ever. They’ll be hosting just their second home playoff match ever next Sunday and supporters of the club would have signed on for every single one of these things back when the season began in March. What a season.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if it all evaporated into thin air in just 90 minutes?

Thanks to the reworked Major League Soccer playoff structure, it just might. The Union’s playoff history aside and the history against the Red Bulls aside, Jim Curtin’s squad is limping into the playoffs. Just one win in the final five matches of the season and a 2-0 loss to to the Red Bulls just three weeks ago. The goalscoring has cooled off severely and since August 17, the team has been shut out three times. That’s the context in which the team ends an otherwise monumental season.

It would be bad enough if the Union had to take this poor form into a two-leg setup. At least in the past, they would have had two full matches to fight for the season. Now, because MLS is doing everything it possibly can to differ from the world’s top soccer leagues, Philly will be limping into a sudden-death elimination game. One match to define their season. Ninety minutes.

After months and months of work and after endless storylines, the 2019 Union could instantly blend into obscurity if their poor form continues next Sunday. All the club records could end up meaning nothing.

It sounds dramatic and admittedly, not every team in the playoffs is in that situation. Some are just happy to be in and some don’t really have much to prove. Atlanta United, for instance, has already won it all. The pressure to repeat is nothing like the pressure to turn the corner. It’s nothing like the pressure Curtin will be feeling. If the Union don’t snap out of bad form and advance next weekend, he might even be fired. If he doesn’t make this team different in the end, all of his 2019 accomplishments will just be hollow numbers.

A lot of that is now MLS’s fault. In an attempt to create more drama and draw more eyes, the playoffs have become March Madness Jr. Instead of mimicking all the sports’ major and historic leagues — where champions are crowned based on an entire season of work, not sudden-death matches — MLS has made the postseason painfully American. Except, not even all the major American sports resort to the single-elimination structure. The Major League Baseball postseason is littered with Game 5 win-or-go-home games right now and the drama has created itself. Those games exist because the teams have battled on four attempts already and still can’t decide a winner. They earned the right to play in a playoff series after a long season of positioning. That season doesn’t end in one night.

Of course soccer is different than baseball and you can’t play back-to-back nights, but what, exactly, was wrong with the two-leg system of old? It took too long? It wasn’t exciting enough? Soccer purists wouldn’t buy those arguments. The UEFA Champions League is plenty exciting. I think some people even watch it every year.

In the current structure, even the level of impressiveness is lowered. It’s far more impressive to beat a team over two legs than it is to beat them at home and advance.

In other cases, it gives the home side an incredibly unfair advantage. You’re telling me the winner of Toronto and D.C. United will have one match in a baseball stadium to keep their season alive? Seriously? The New York City FC stadium debacle has been present for years and is somewhat of a separate issue, but imagine if it were the Union traveling to Yankee Stadium and their season fell on one match played in center field. Oh, wait, that already happened in 2018. Right.

My criticism of Curtin has been noted and sometimes misguided, but I will be first in line to tell you next Sunday is not fair to him. He deserves much more of a chance to make this season a defining one. One match, with his squad playing poorly of late, is not a just way to decide the fate of 2019. I understand that some of that is the team’s fault and some of it may even be Curtin’s — it’s vital to be playing your best soccer this time of year. It just significantly devalues the regular season that was historic for the 2019 Union.

A loss next weekend would be half “Same old Union” and half “What a dumb way for the season to end.” Just like that it’s all over. If it does happen and if all hell breaks loose on this website and others, MLS will be partly to blame. It has created a structure that in no way determines the best team in the league. Instead it’s an American bracket to appeal to the casual fan. Instead the Union’s poor form may be more prominent than an entire season of work.

Instead, it all comes down to manufactured drama.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    I agree. For me the playoffs should have less teams and go back to the home and away legs… with the Final, obviously staying as a one-off. 14 teams is just a stupid amount of teams, in a league with 24. Bye weeks are also stupid – meaning NYC gets an additional week off, after the International break.
    I’d reduce the total teams in by at least 2 and get rid of the top seed having a bye.

  2. Concur. Against the idea of separate conferences and playoffs to begin with, but if we are going to do it this way, it should at least be across a home leg and an away leg.

  3. Do you have the same complaints of the Open Cup? Is that “unfair” and “manufactured drama?”
    I see MLS as awarding two different types of teams: The consistent team gets rewarded with the Supporters Shield. The team that can duke it out in a bracket structure gets the MLS Cup. It just so happens that people tend to value MLS Cup over the Shield. So if you care about fair and the better team wins, then LAFC is your 2019 champ. Go celebrate. If you don’t subscribe to that belief, then buckle up for MLS Cup playoffs.

    • Vagabond Ben says:

      Supporters Shield would only matter if there were balanced schedules where each team played the others home and away. Too many variables between schedules for it to mean anything as it is.

      • And even there, the way the MLS schedules things with a 6000 miles round trip midweek game would make it a joke.

    • Comparing USOC to MLS Cup is bizarre. Two completely different structured competitions.

  4. To my mind, even if the Union lose, they are still continuing to move in the right direction and Curtin shouldn’t be fired.
    Unless he decides to bring in Trusty as a 5th defender in Union home playoff tradition. Then he’s out of there.

  5. Red Bulls fan here. All I can say is, ‘Tell me about it.’ My club just cannot figure out playoffs. Three times in six years we’ve raised the Shield, 10 years in a row we’ve made the playoffs, and in 2017 we even made a US Open Cup final. In most of the rest of the world they’d be three time champions. The Red Bulls should be considered one of the greatest MLS teams of the past decade, and would be, if they could get through a knockout tournament and win just one Cup. Instead, every season ends with the same sour aftertaste. Good luck Philly!

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    ‘aaaahhhh come on guys maybe you need a refresher course, it’s all ball bearings now a days.’

  7. John P. O'Donnell Jr. says:

    The only consistent thing is nobody will ever be happy. Meh.
    Myself,I believe the new system is the best. LAFC will never leave their stadium to win the Cup. If that isn’t a reward for winning the Supporters’ Shield, I don’t know what is. Only NYCFC and LAFC had winning records on the road this year, showing the importance of home games. Sure there will be upsets, happens everywhere, no?
    If they keep the number of teams the same as they expand to thirty two teams, I’ll be fine with this system. Besides the last few years the first round knock out games were way more exciting. Atlanta won the first round game at Red Bull last year 3-0. Going home and having to win 4-0 isn’t a reward for a great season in my opinion.

    • I totally agree. If you have to squeeze the playoffs between the FIFA international calendar, which no one has mentioned, this is the way to do it. This year it works. Next year, on the other hand, you have 6 key Concacaf World Cup qualifiers(2 in Sep, 2 in Oct and 2 in Nov). So you know there will be controversy somewhere.

      Another point is there’s so much parity in MLS, I’d rather reward the home team. There’s an NFL-like feel to these playoffs which I like. Basically, get it done now or never at home. I would hope it would make for more urgency and more entertaining games.

  8. I first heard this suggested when there were far fewer teams in the playoffs, but I always thought the best idea I heard proposed was having a group stage for the preliminary rounds. At the time the proposal was a 4 team group in each conference, and everyone plays each team in their group, home field is given to higher seed (eg 1seed plays all 3 games at home, 2seed plays 2 games at home and game at 1seed, etc). Winners of the 2 groups play one game for MLS Cup.

    With 7 teams in now it wouldn’t really be practical, but you could increase it to 8 teams from each conference with two 4-team groups per conference. That would be 3 games for everyone in the preliminaries, then group winners in each conference play each other in semis, and winners play the Final. 5 weeks to crown a champ. I guess the hardest thing would be how to place the teams into the groups. Maybe seeds 1, 8, 4, and 5 in one group and 2, 3, 6, and 7 in the other? Not sure if you could cram it in between both international breaks…but MLS would never do it anyway.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      That sounds great. I think 5 teams from each conference would work with the #1 seed sitting out waiting for the winner. I think there should be a reward for winning the conference in the regular season. But like you said, MLS is cowardly.

  9. Its do or DIe time….do your job curtin be prepared and have a plan to counter the double team on montiero and or ilsinio, you know there going to do it. do not play marco unless we are ahead by 3 goals in the 80th minute. make sure blake takes his focus factor. no excuses for every player to not give 110% in a one game playoff, curtin you have over 2 weeks to prepare and motivate this team.

  10. The comparison to UEFA Champions League is asinine. The only reason they do home/away in that competition is because those teams literally come from various leagues across Europe. Why would you give one team a home field advantage over another team when they didn’t even play in the same domestic leagues to qualify for UEFA?

    And comparing it to March Madness is also asinine because those games are played at neutral sites where neither team really has a home court advantage.

    The MLS playoff set up this yr actually increased the importance of the regular season because, on average, soccer teams win roughly 62% of their games when playing at home. When you have a home/away set up, it literally is a toss up on who advances because each team gets a shot at home which negates the higher seeds advantage. I want to say for MLS, lower seeds actually had a slightly higher percentage of advancing in those cases in the yrs that format was implemented. What’s the point of having a regular season if it won’t benefit you at all in the playoffs?

    Reward the better teams with home field and if your team can’t win at home in a playoff game then that’s a you problem.

    And let’s say champions were determined the same as in other domestic leagues in Europe. Well then everything philly accomplished this yr would still be meaningless because LAFC would have essentially clinched the MLS championship way back in early August and the last two months of the season would have been a waste of time. Unless you want to celebrate having the 5th best record in the league…..

    home/away arguments for MLS playoffs are just dumb, especially when you don’t factor in all the variables (pros/cons) between different competitions around the world

  11. Pro/rel is unlikely but I do hope for a future when we have a Western and Eastern conference breakdown. Regular season only competes within conference (which would really help with the travel woes). Top four from each side come together and you have a nice lil playoff tournament at the end.
    That’s what I want.
    Getting around the international break is difficult.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Pro/rel is the dream, but I’m not holding my breath.

      • You will see pro/rel in USL in a few years between USL1 and USLC, I would guess with some confidence.
        This season Bethlehem would be relegated.

      • John P. O'Donnell Jr. says:

        I have a feeling the pro/rel you speak of might not apply to MLS owned teams. Also think all those teams might get bumped down to USL1 in the coming years.

  12. Love a 1 and done playoff. Very exiting and lots a strategy since there is no tomorrow.

    That being said, Curtin should get fired after the loss to NYRB (next sunday) but he won’t.

  13. My biggest gripe with the playoffs is that half the league enters them. 14 teams? C’mon. The maximum number of teams should be 8. Eventually, I think it would be good to have conference champions based on points alone and maybe have a playoff between the two for MLS cup. For the excitement of a more chaotic, single-elimination cup tournament, embrace and invest in the Open Cup. It’s actually an American competition with honest-to-god history.

    I know some here will argue with me here, but I do think the MLS playoff system takes the urgency from individual games. When you’ve locked up a playoff spot, are you really going to play with the same urgency as when you have to fight week after week for points? I’d offer up last weekend’s Union performance as evidence that they won’t. It’s impossible to know. It’s just my view.

  14. Cruel? You’re nuts. The only way the Union will ever win a trophy is this way. You think adding more games actually helps this club?!?! We’re literally the “bring a knife to a gun fight” team. They need to smash and grab a trophy. Extending the postseason with home and away to deeper pocketed and often just more talented clubs who can weather injuries better isn’t playing into our plans. They need the shortest path of least resistance or the “XX years no Cups” opposition chants will rain down.

    • agree 100%. its balls to wall in this game Curtin if you want to regain any self respect for the season ending slump. nothing to gain by holding anything back in a 1 game playoff. A least you can say you beat the Red Bulls in an MLS playoff game. Take a chance that your next opponent will have an important player or 2 not playing 100%. Anything could happen if you just win and move on. No pussying around please show some emotion and guts to your players and fans of the Union . You are such a nerd 99% of the time. That’s one of the reasons why you have not won over the city. Leave the suit at home and put on a practice jersey or old sweatshirt. Look like your part of the team and not modeling for GQ. If you win go back to your suit. Just win.

  15. I must say that I disagree with this piece entirely. I think the new system is a decided improvement. I do agree with others who would prefer fewer teams in the playoffs, but other than that, I think this is the way to go.

    First of all, it rewards regular season performance. The knock on the prior system is that you play all these games, and they hardly matter because of the playoffs. Now, your performance over 34 games sets you up — very strongly — to succeed or fail come playoff time.

    Second, you fail to mention a very problematic side effect of the previous home-and-home system: it extended the playoffs so far that MLS Cup was played in December. That is simply inhospitable for much of this continent, and let to some games in terrible cold conditions. The league should end in November.

    Also, I find it telling that you mention March Madness, and MLB, but leave out the best comparison, which is the NFL — where playoffs are single elimination, at the higher squad’s home stadium (until the Super Bowl). It works just fine and nobody has any complaints.

    And I have no complaints about any “cruelty” in this system. If the Union can’t be NYRB a at home, they deserve to be out. And if they wanted to host a playoff match against Atlanta in the next round, they should’ve taken care of business against Columbus and NYC in the final couple weeks of the regular season.

  16. “We’re not good enough to win in the playoffs.”

    I’ve got news for you, buddy. If you’re not good enough to win in the playoffs, then you’re not good enough to win a championship in any format.

  17. The upside of this format for the Union is that it basically turns it into what the USOC does except it’s focused upon the top tier teams. If a team can win 4 matches–including turning any otherwise draws into wins via the forced OT or PKs–they can win the Cup.
    This format is bad for teams like LAFC or NYCFC who finished clearly the best teams in each conference by overall record. For all that work, they could be out on just one match’s performance, including draws against a top tier team being resolved in OT or PKs.
    On the other hand, if New England beats Atlanta even by OT or PKs, then we get another home match against them. If we win against NE even in OT or by PKs, and NYCFC loses its match, then we’re back at home against DC or Toronto who beat them. We might even get the home MLS Cup match provided what happens with Seattle.
    It’s up to us to win 4 matches against the other top tier teams and prove our worth.

  18. Parity 101.American playoff system for a World Sport..Too many B+ players and no A Gold Standard player in Philly..Just look at the other top four teams.They spend.And spending has it’s risks.(eg.Accam,Fabian) I agree the manager has to go if they lose, but the problem ultimately remains with ownnership.. Also, how can you get enthused when Curtin insults,arrogantly,what he perceives as the 5% of the fans(Presser after the NYFC game circling the wagons) making the most noise in criticising the team and is dismissive of those valid complaints. Founding Member here, tired of excuses after 10 years(and $10 dollar beers)..Same old Union?,well you earned it with this late season collapse.. Stop standing behind your players and stand up to them.Afraid of loosing the locker room?That may have allready happened.Your the Boss Jim, not their friend. Where do you think Bedoya is gonna be next year? Miami? He sees it.Just win!

  19. Kip Leitner says:

    My experience of watching MLS games, and some live at the stadium for the Philadelphia Union, is that teams are unfocused and some don’t really put out 100% until the playoffs, which can tend to make some of the regular season games boring and uncompetitive.
    You can see players taking silly fouls, getting ejected for arguing with the ref or bumping him or other players. Because some MLS refs tend to let the game get quite rough, MLS is starting to develop this tradition where after serious fouls (not called by referee) players tend to shove and bump one another around for a while, getting more yellow cards, getting ejected. If you could read the minds of these players I’m sure you run into that fact that they are thinking “this game doesn’t really matter — we’re in the playoffs now so we can relax and do stupid things on the field”. Or “we’re not in the playoffs so we can do whatever we want — or not, on the field.”
    Also, my main point in favoring “best record is league champion” system (without playoffs) is that this makes the middle third of each season — when the title — or positioning to win it in the last third — very exciting, and so you can see weeks and months of very high-level play, with players on best behavior, knowing the title is on the line.
    And, you don’t have the situation where LAFC, this year’s far and way best team, gets eliminated because a single opponent — in this case, Ruidiaz from Sounders — has a single terrific game and a few bounces and breaks all go against LAFC. I don’t think the drama of Ruidiaz’s great game with the defensive posture of the Sounders against an extraordinary LAFC team should give them title rights. Any team can bunker in and then get lucky on the counter. They shouldn’t win the league because of it.
    No matter who wins the playoffs this year, I think all soccer minds will agree that LAFC is the best team in the league and knowing this and still watching playoffs happen reveals them to be the marketing ploy they are.
    Having said this, there is also merit in considering playoffs between the top 4 teams.
    Declaring a league champion every year by some process is a psychological thing really. Some people simply “must have” a declared champion while others would be happy simply seeing good matches. I’m in the latter camp. I like seeing players and the refs and the fans all having good matches.
    And even if the winner of the title is known in advance, this still makes the last part of the season interesting where teams in the lower half of the table often reorganize and try new approaches to the game to show that they are revamping and can ber competitive against teams with better records.
    And, if the title race is close down the final stretch of the seaon, there are many quite good matches between teams in the top tier eager to demonstrate against one another, and especially against the league winner, that they too are forces to be reckoned with. When the 2nd or 3rd place team pulls off a 4-1 win against the league champion, this has real meaning, suggesting something like “they may be the league champions this year, but matched up against them, we’re the better team.” It sorta like Real Madrid winning la Liga but not being able to beat Barcelona, or vice-versa.
    Anyway, just some thoughts.

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