MLS introduced a new playoff structure yesterday, and there are some notable changes to what we have become used. At first glance, some of the changes make absolute sense, while some others make little to no sense to me at all. America loves its playoffs, and MLS just made its playoff structure that much more exciting, but is it the right way to approach this very “American” addition to the football season in the U.S.?
The 2018 MLS season culminated in another five weeks of excitement and despair. Since our beloved Orlando City has yet to make the MLS playoffs and chase the dreams of lifting the MLS Cup, some of you may need a quick refresher on just how the playoffs used to work, since we are a mere 10 days removed from the culmination in Atlanta.
The old system took six teams from each division, allowing the top two seeds from each division a bye for the first round. The first round was a single-elimination match, pitting the third-place teams against the sixth-place teams, and the fourth-place against the fifth-place teams. The winners of those matches would advance, with the lower-ranked seed playing the No. 1 team, and the higher seed playing the second-place team. Every match-up in this round was determined by an aggregate score of a two-match series, with tie breakers solved by away goals. The aggregate winner advanced to the conference final, which was again a home-and-away series. The winner of that series reached the MLS Cup final, which was a winner-take-all, single-elimination match. Does all of that make sense to you?
The new playoff system is now much different. The whole playoff time frame is being compressed into a little over three weeks. The schedule has the playoffs sitting right in between the two FIFA international breaks. It has also removed the home and away aspect and made every match a single elimination. What is more exciting than a win-or-go home match?
The only teams that receive byes in the new playoff system are the No. 1 seeds from the two conferences. The rest of the brackets are filled according to ranking, but unlike the previous years, the brackets are now fixed. This means that instead of the lowest seed playing a higher seed, there is no restructuring, the winning team simply moves to the next stage of the bracket. The only thing to watch here is who has the higher seed, as this team will have home-field advantage.
To put that into perspective, the seventh-place team in the conference will have to win every match on the road to raise the MLS Cup, while the No. 1 team, after a bye in the first round, plays every match at home. Anyone who has kept up with MLS for a while knows how difficult it is to get a result on the road. The rationale behind this is being rewarded for regular season play with increased opportunity to host a home match in the playoffs. The top seeds in each conference are given the best odds at advancing, if you look at the historic nature of win/loss record of home and away teams in the playoffs.
If this sounds like MLS trying to give the higher-seeded teams a distinct advantage, I would say you are right, but would also say it is stripping away some of the excitement that they think they are bringing in with the new structure. Instead of a fixed bracket, why not go to a blind draw system, still allowing the No. 1 seed a bye in the first round? The excitement comes from hoping you are drawn as the home team, as well as hoping you are pitted against a much lower seeded team. This would also mean that a seven seed could host a two seed at home. This would be a little more aligned with the international competitions, minus the home and away aspect, and still allow the competition to occur in the much more condensed time frame as they are planning for 2019.
While the rest of the world is satisfied with crowing a winner after the regular season, our American appetite for playoffs continues. The minds within MLS have tweaked the system once again — by my count this will be the 10th iteration of the MLS Cup playoff system — and only time will tell if the choices they made were the right ones. One thing is certain though: Just making the playoffs is no longer good enough. Teams are going to have to make it a much bigger priority to finish high in the conference standings now, considering just how important home-field advantage is in MLS.
The race to get above the red line just got more intense, but hopefully it doesn’t stifle the excitement of the playoffs. Is this too much reward for the regular season?