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Evaluating the New MLS Playoff Structure

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Was the first year under the new playoff format a success or failure?

NYCFC v Toronto FC: MLS Cup Eastern Conference Semifinal Match Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

On Dec. 17 of last year, Major League Soccer announced that it would be switching to a new playoff format and new playoff scheduling starting in 2019. The competitive changes involved 14 teams making the playoffs instead of 12, with only one team receiving a first-round bye; a fixed bracket with no re-seeding; and the switch to a single-elimination format for the entire duration of the postseason. Scheduling-wise the playoffs would now be shorter than in years past, with the entirety of the postseason taking place between the October and November international breaks.

The changes were intended to do a number of different things. First, the move to a 14-team playoff field was made with an eye towards MLS expanding to 28 teams in the very near future. The decision to do away with two-legged ties was intended to both make the playoffs more exciting, and shorten the overall duration of the postseason. That also played into the league putting the playoffs in between two international breaks, so that teams wouldn’t potentially be missing players, and also provided continuity throughout the run of the playoffs for both teams and fans instead of having things broken up by the November international break. A final (even though not explicitly stated) reason for the changes was to try to attract a wider and more casual audience to the league, and provide a showcase for the growth of MLS in America. The question is: did it work?

The first thing to look at is the playoff field itself. Plenty of people suggested that letting in seven teams from each conference would result in bad teams making the postseason and lower the overall quality of play. I don’t think that was the case whatsoever. All but one of the first-round games in the playoffs this year was decided by one goal, with the outlier being a 5-1 thrashing that Toronto FC handed out to D.C. United in a game that only really got out of hand during extra time. That’s exactly the same number of lopsided games as 2018, with the one game that was decided by more than one goal being between New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union — a game that finished 3-1 in favor of New York. Throughout the rest of the 2019 playoffs the quality of play has remained pretty high. There were some eye-popping scores in the form of a 5-3 LA Galaxy defeat to LAFC and a subsequent 3-1 LAFC loss at the hands of the Seattle Sounders, but none of the teams looked truly outmatched against their opponents. For me, adding another team from each conference has worked out just fine.

The next item on the list concerns excitement, and overall entertainment value. Doing away with two-legged ties in the conference semifinals and conference finals was done with an eye towards jazzing up the playoffs and making them more exciting, which is something that probably needed to be done. Between the 2018 conference semifinals and conference finals there were three 1-0 wins, and one each of a 1-1 draw and 0-0 draw, accounting for five games out of the total 12 that could be classified as “boring” if you simply go by the scoreline.

Furthermore, all but one of those “boring” games took place in the first leg of the tie as a result of teams coming out cautious and being afraid to make too many mistakes and thereby finding themselves in a hole when it came to aggregate goals. Compare that to this year, where there’s been a solitary 1-0 win throughout the entire duration of the playoffs, nine games out of 12 where the teams have combined for at least three goals, and an absolute slew of late goals — with the first round in particular packed to the gills with drama.

Obviously there can’t be any draws in the single-elimination format, but the dearth of 1-0 wins is certainly a good sign. Goals per game are also up in the playoffs, with an average of 3.13 scored in 2018 and 3.5 in 2019. It remains to be seen if that trend continues in the MLS Cup final, but early returns are good. I’m not suggesting that the 1-0 wins and pair of draws were all dull games, but few soccer fans would disagree that goals make games more exciting, and going by that (admittedly somewhat simple) logic, 2019 passes the test again.

That brings us to scheduling. Last year, the first round of the playoffs began on Oct. 31, with the MLS Cup final taking place Dec. 8 — meaning that the playoffs took a total of four and a half weeks. That’s a long time, especially compared to this year, which saw the first round start on Oct. 19 with the final coming up on Nov. 10, clocking in at three weeks and one day. Obviously it’s shorter, but the fact that the playoffs are no longer bisected by the November international break is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

In the past it was just a little awkward, with the last game of the conference semifinals taking place on Nov. 11 and the conference finals not starting until two full weeks later on Nov. 25 in order to accommodate the international window. While there’s a week and a half break this year between the conference finals and the MLS Cup final, it’s time off that makes sense. The teams have ample time to prepare for each other, get healthy, and try to ensure that they’ll be able to give their best performances in the most important game of the season. It’s a break by choice rather than necessity, and one that certainly makes sense. The shorter, more coherent playoffs are a win in my book.

Finally, that brings us to the state of MLS and the league’s goal to continue to attract new and wider American audiences. While the growth of the league wasn’t explicitly stated as a reason for the format switch, it isn’t hard to connect some dots and see that it probably played a least a small part in the final decision. Average casual fans aren’t going to put their butts in seats only to witness a 0-0 draw, or even a 1-0 win that sees the team with the goal putting 11 men behind the ball to protect their aggregate score. Plus the two-legged nature of the conference semifinals and conference finals didn’t have the same level of stakes as the new single-elimination format. While the aggregate score format certainly provided us with some memorable moments, win or go home is simple and provides a greater sense of urgency to get to the stadium and see your team.

It’s also an easier format to digest. While grasping the concept of aggregate scores and away goals isn’t particularly difficult, those things aren’t done in any other mainstream American sport, and doing away with them only serves to Americanize soccer and make it more digestible for a domestic audience. There are some numbers to back up that it’s working too — according to a recent article by Forbes, average playoff attendance is at 31,100 this year, up from 26,343 in 2018. And while some of that increase can be attributed to teams with large and passionate fan bases like Atlanta, Seattle, and Toronto making deep runs, it’s also worth noting that the lowest attendance at a playoff game this year was only 17,452 at Real Salt Lake’s game against the Portland Timbers.

Add in the fact that there were 12 smaller crowds at playoff games from 2015-2018 and it seems that the switch has had the desired effect of attracting fans in greater numbers. It remains to be seen whether or not the trend continues, but early results are positive, so it passes the last test.

All in all, the switch seems to be working out very well for Major League Soccer — at least according to the four points I outlined. Quality of play remains high despite adding two more teams, goals per game have increased, and 1-0 wins are scarcely anywhere to be found. The postseason is shorter and no longer has to cater to an international break, and average attendance is up. While only time will tell whether or not the positive trends continue, for the first year of the new playoff format it’s so far, so very, very good.