Apparently, taking a good hard look at the fairness of your playoff format is contagious these days.
Last night, The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal and Pablo Maurer reported that MLS is looking at a massive change to its playoff system, coinciding with a switch to Apple TV next season in order to get more people on board with, y’know, paying to watch MLS games. The long and short of it is that the playoff field would expand, under one scenario, to 16 teams (eight in each conference) which would be then split into groups of four by conference (two groups in the East, two in the West). They would then play a World Cup-style group stage before heading onto a final four in each conference that would then play a single elimination bracket before the two conference champs meet in the final.
It is clear that the MLS Playoffs have a problem, though whether this system addresses those issues is up for debate. The single-elimination system the league has now doesn’t really do much to reward the regular season, which then makes a lot of the regular season dull and almost meaningless. Fans of most teams know that once they have their spot locked in or are locked out, there’s not much to play for. Only the handful of teams around the seventh and last playoff spot as the season winds down are playing for much. Having the bye as the top seed hasn’t always meant much (just last season both top seeds lost their first playoff game after a bye), and there isn’t a whole lot of weight put on the Supporters’ Shield (given to the best regular season team).
Would this new system reward the better teams more? Maybe? Certainly guaranteeing every team three games instead of one gives teams a better chance for their quality to shine through. A top seed could lose their first game and still have two more chances against teams worse than them in this group stage to clinch their way to the knockouts. Getting to host two games instead of one isn’t that big of an advantage as laid out here, but it’s something.
What MLS is really eyeing here is that its playoffs would balloon from 15 games to 30, and with a group stage, the league could stagger the schedule to have games basically every night and build some real momentum and buzz. This is clearly a lot better than the current system that gets swallowed up by going against college football or the NFL, even on Thursday nights. That’s not nothing.
Still, this doesn’t really get at the league’s real problem, and that’s the “meh” nature of its regular season. It’s hard to see that fans who weren’t already going to purchase whatever Apple’s MLS package is going to be being lured in by the expanded playoffs and just putting up with the borderline-lifeless regular season (at times). Or they’ll just pay for the playoffs, if that’s available, and maybe that’s what MLS and Apple are after, and think that will be a good ROI for them. This system would expand the playoff field to 16 instead of 14, which yes, might give more teams a chance, but will also increase the number of teams that are safe by June. If the prizes at the top of the league still aren’t all that glitzy and worth a full-out blitz to get, you still have a lot of teams running out the clock for a good portion of the season. The top seed in a playoff group isn’t really Valhalla.
What this new system is pawing at is a “split,” a system used in Scotland and a few other leagues. The Scottish league, which has 12 teams, sees every club play each other three times for 33 games. At that point, the league is split — the bottom six and the top six. The points teams have collected over the first 33 games still count. Teams then play every team in their half of the split one more time, meaning every team plays a total of 38 games. It focuses teams on either the title chase, European places, or relegation, while rewarding season-long excellence.
MLS doesn’t have relegation, which complicates this (and that’s a whole other discussion, but should its seemingly Ponzi-like expansion scheme continue after St. Louis joins next year and they get up to 32, 34, or even 36 teams one day they may have to talk about it). But it does have CONCACAF Champions League places, which after Seattle’s win in the spring has become something more fans are aware of and would like their team to have. MLS could just go to a “split” system in each conference, let the bottom halves in the East and West go home for the winter, and the top half teams compete for conference titles and CCL places. MLS could still have its signature, showpiece final between the Eastern and Western champs, except we would know those were definitely the two best teams contesting it. MLS could just call this “the playoffs” while making performance over the entire regular season the most important, and only, thing.
And MLS has five CCL places. They could easily be awarded to the two conference champs, the two second-place finishers, and then have the two third-placed teams after the split playoff for the final spot. That would give almost every team that makes the cutoff something to play for, even if the conference champ is a runaway.
It’s not a traditional playoffs, which MLS has always thought it’s needed to attract the casual viewer. But what MLS has learned in various other areas is that fans want to see a similar game that they see in the rest of the world, which they still watch more than MLS. Soccer fans in this country know why other leagues keep their regular seasons and cup competitions separate. Or like Mexico does, it weighs its regular season in those playoffs so that higher-seeded teams only need to draw their playoff rounds to advance. It gives weight to the regular season.
You can see MLS’s logic here, as this system would still be on the heels of the World Cup, so casual fans would still be aware of the group method. But it’s not a long-term solution. Just look like the rest of the world, and slap a “playoffs” label on it. That’s just a measure of marketing, which Apple should be good at.