The Full 90

MLS still has issues with playoff structure

Updated: 2011-10-26T18:22:55Z

Charles Gooch

The Kansas City Star

Here's how I know that Sporting Kansas City are having an effect on non-fans in Kansas City. I've fielded the "What's the deal with the MLS playoffs?" question a lot this week.

I will explain it to the best of my ability. Then I'll watch them make the same face my friend's three-year-old makes when I ask him his take on quantum physics. (I don't do this often.) Then I always say, "I'm sorry."

As fans, you don't have a lot choice in this matter. You might not like it, but you sorta have to accept it, root for your home team and move on. And, of course, suffer the shame of trying to explain it to the lay soccer fan.

But we can talk about the problems. Of which there are many that really should be fixed. (Hey, they've changed the format three times in the last four years! Why not make it four out of five?)

For most lay fans, the aggregate two-game series is the most confusing aspect. That's sort of the least of my problems. At least it's a replication of the knock-out style in many European cups.

My biggest issue is that 56% of the league qualify for the playoffs -- 10 of the 18 teams. That's just too many. The only American sports that comes close (percentage-wise) are the NBA/NHL with 53%. They each have 30 teams.

More teams create more chance of random occurrence. Now, while it's commonly accepted in most American leagues that the best team doesn't always win in the playoffs (you could argue that's what inherently makes playoffs interesting), most leagues try to mitigate random chance as much as possible.

This is my second issue with the MLS playoffs.

The NHL and NBA mitigate the potential for randomness* -- and overcome the majority of teams making the playoffs -- by adhering to a best-of-seven format. The thinking being that, on a long enough timeline, the team with more talent will win. (Major League Baseball also uses the seven-game format; the NFL uses bye weeks and home-field advantage.)

*Randomness isn't a bad thing. The NCAA tournament is a big pile of random. A little random never hurt. Too much random always hurts.

MLS tries to do this -- for the one round that uses the two-game aggregate system. After the conference semifinals, though, the rest of the MLS playoffs abandon the two-game series. Imagine the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks fight through a best-of-seven series in the first round, a best of three in the second, a one-game winner-take-all in the third and settle the NBA Finals with a dunk contest. It's ludicrous.

The playoffs shouldn't get easier and more random as they progress. It should be the opposite.

My third issue -- which is related to both of my first issues -- is that there is no protection for the top seeds.

In the last 6 MLS Cup playoffs, a #1 seed has been knocked off in the first round (San Jose in '05, Dallas in '06, DC and Chivas in '07, Houston in '08, Columbus in '09 and New York in '10). Furthermore, a team seeded 8th (until this year, the last qualifier*) has won the MLS cup twice (Los Angeles in '05 and Salt Lake in '09) and made the finals once more (New York in '08).

*This year's format (the top three teams in each conference plus four wild cards) is the third different system in four years.

Most of the top teams who fell in the first round did so in the two-leg aggregate. So, you can argue that doesn't go far enough.

The league tried to make changes this year by instituting the wild-card and expanding to 10 teams. Ostensibly, this will make it harder for the last four teams into the playoffs to put together a run. (Can you imagine New York winning tonight in Dallas, playing Los Angeles on Sunday and Thursday, and then potentially playing again on Sunday? Didn't think so. That's four highly competitive games in a week-and-a-half.)

But the No. 1 seeds (Los Angeles and Kansas City) will still have to take their games on the road to open the playoffs. (Heck, Seattle and Salt Lake finished with more points than Kansas City but have to play each other in the Conference Semifinals. One of the league's top three teams will be out of the picture by next Friday. In a league with a completely balanced schedule, what sort of advantage is that for doing well in the regular season?)

The league should reward regular-season excellence better. The simple solution would be less teams, more home-field advantage and continue the two-game aggregate series format until the MLS Cup Final. (The UEFA Champions League Final is also a one-off game, so there's precedence in soccer.)

But that probably won't happen. The schedule is already too long and MLS owners want 10 playoff teams.

This summer, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl and The Sporting News' Brian Strauss proposed a much more interesting scenario that I whole-heartedly support: World Cup-style Pool Play.

Even non-soccer fans understand the concept of pool play. The MLS could work it just like they did this year with 10 teams. Each conference would split into four-team pools and play every team in that pool once (just three match nights).

In the West: Los Angeles, Seattle and Salt Lake are in one group. Dallas and Colorado would play for the fourth spot in a play-in game.

In the East: Kansas City, Houston and Philadelphia are in a group. Columbus and New York would play for the fourth spot in a play-in game.

As a reward for finishing first place, Los Angeles and Kansas City would host all of its games at home. Seattle and Houston would play two games at home. Salt Lake and Philadelphia would host one game.

Note: This would work under the current format with no tweaking the schedule. The wildcards play tonight and tomorrow. Pool play would start with Group A on Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday and Group B on Sunday-Thursday-Sunday. The MLS Finals could stay on Nov. 20. If the East/West thing doesn't work for you, how about seeding each team 1-8 (after the play-in games) based on regular season points and having 1,4,5,8 in one pool and 2,3,6,7 in the other?

Pool play mitigates random-occurence, keeps in-line with traditionally soccer standards and would be wildly entertaining. Imagine a guaranteed three home games at Livestrong Sporting Park!

That would be a playoff structure that everyone can understand and follow. (Heck, it would even make office-pools more entertaining than this mess.)

Instead, we have this current situation starting tonight. But, like playing blackjack in Vegas, you play by the house rules. Just because you think it would be more interesting if you could win with 24, the rules say 21.

Until someone changes them of course.


Dallas and New York go at it at 8 p.m. on Fox Soccer tonight. If Dallas wins, Kansas City will travel to Texas to open the semifinals on Saturday night. If New York wins, Kansas City will play the winner of Columbus/Colorado on Sunday.

My prediction: Dallas 2, New York 1. The Red Bulls have been dreadful on the road this year and Dallas is a well-coached team with the best player on the field (Brek Shea). Yeah, I just said Shea is better than Theirry Henry.

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