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Our City: How the MLS Cup Playoff Structure is Hurting the Development of U.S. Soccer and MLS.

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While the Dynamo, Sounders, Crew, and Reds vie for MLS Cup the rest of the league's players and fans have already checked out, and that’s a real problem.

MLS: MLS Cup Team Press Conferences Jason Mowry-USA TODAY Sports

Our City is a weekly column dedicated to the culture that surrounds Orlando City, Major League Soccer, and the American soccer landscape.

Many Major League Soccer fans outside of Houston, Seattle, Columbus, and Toronto were shocked to hear that the MLS Cup playoffs were still going on this past Tuesday. In their defense, a two-week international break in the midst of a playoff isn’t something any of us have ever seen in any league, soccer or not. Upon hearing this news about restarted playoff runs on a Tuesday night, many of those same MLS fans started to ask some real questions about how and why the league sets up the playoffs in this way.

MLS has incorporated a playoff system to crown a champion since its initial season in 1996. The playoff is a nod to the American sports tradition, and a relic of a league eager to reshape the rules to win over a football-baseball-basketball-hockey-centric sports fan. Simply ending the season with a champion at the top of the league just wasn’t going to do, so a conference-based playoff system meant to generate hype up until the final whistle of MLS Cup was implemented.

In a league without a significant regional Champions League or promotion and relegation, a playoff system does generate interest in the games played by middling teams right up until the end. In theory and in practice, playoffs are the best way to end an MLS season.

Still, I’ve got problems with how this system seems to work for all clubs and players. Part of this conversation has to be the ghost that looms in every domestic soccer conversation, acknowledged or not — the United States Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Regardless of your position on the responsibility of MLS to train young Americans for the national team, the core of our young players and the national team pool do in fact play in the domestic league. Most of those players have been on vacation for a month now.

While this quote from one of the better players in MLS is problematic on multiple levels, the two-month vacation comment certainly felt significant in light of the MLS Cup playoffs involving a handful of clubs.

MLS teams played 34 games this past season — a number that will probably move higher as the league continues to expand. The major leagues of Europe generally play 38 games per season. This includes the top tier leagues in England, Spain, Italy, and France. The German and Dutch leagues play 34 as well. This base number is multiplied by two domestic cups and a pair of more robust continental championships. For example, Real Madrid played 60 games in 2016 between their run to the UEFA Champions League final, the FIFA Club World Cup, Copa del Rey, and the league. Of course, this is the extreme, as most teams won’t make the Champions League final or FIFA Club World Cup, but it presents opportunities for players to play, brands to be built, and tickets to be sold.

I’m not suggesting Orlando City is ready to tackle a 60-game season, but should its players be on vacation already while four other clubs have an extra month or more of time developing players at every level of their rosters, of selling tickets, merchandise, and keeping their names trending on social media? If we are honest about our desire for a better domestic league, teams with stronger finances, and players who are ready to compete on an international level, then we need to play more games.

As we continue an ongoing debate about raising the standard of American soccer, playing more games has to be part of that conversation.