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Opinion: MLS Playoff Format Needs to Change

The current MLS Playoff format, while possibly serving a purpose, only hurts the league.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The basis for this opinion piece is a survey from the Soccer United Council. For those who don't know, SUC is a website run by MLS to basically survey MLS fans in an attempt to better the league. Today I received a survey about the current format of the league and playoff format. My responses were basically that I was unhappy, but since I couldn't spell out my opinion there, I figured why not here. Now, I know this isn't strictly focused on the NY Red Bulls, but I figure that shouldn't matter in this case.

Ideally, I would like to not see playoffs, but I know why they exist. I would like to see MLS move to a single table with a balanced schedule (Example: English Premier League). However, since that will not happen any time soon (or probably at all), I will settle for a better playoff system. The current system; to remind everyone:

  • Top 5 teams in each conference qualify for playoffs (total 10 out of 19 teams, more than 50%).
  • #4 plays #5 in one game "Wildcard" round.
  • #1 vs 4/5, #2 vs #3 in a home-and-home. Total goals win, no away goal as a tiebreaker.
  • Winners meet in home-and-home conference finals.
  • Conference winners meet in one game, with the higher seed (based on regular season point total) hosting.
The problems with this system:
  • No real advantage for higher seeds since MLS does not use the away goal rule for 2-leg series. Advantage only kicks in if there is a draw on aggregate goals.
  • Schedule before MLS Cup is so compact that teams are more affected by injuries.
  • Wildcard team can see a one and done situation. This is worse for the #4 seed as they can have a much better season than #5 and lose out in 90 minutes.
My idea to revamp the playoffs is kind of a modified version of one Grant Wahl put out in 2011. I'm ignoring the idea of a balanced schedule, as I don't see this happening anytime soon.

  • Top 4 teams in each conference qualify. This would mean less than half of the teams in MLS make the postseason.
  • Teams play a group stage ala World Cup, Gold Cup, etc. However, #1 gets all 3 games at home, #2 gets 2 at home, #3 gets 1, and #4 is on the road for all 3 games (see table below). All games are played in conference (none of that pre-2012 Red Bulls Western Conference Champs stuff). Final round of the group stage to be played at the same time to avoid any collusion between teams.
Seed Home Games Away Games
1 3 0
2 2 1
3 1 2
4 0 3
  • #1 in group stage hosts #2 in 1 game for conference final.
  • Conference winners face each other with highest regular season points used for hosting privileges.
  • One game per week throughout playoffs to help with injuries and travel time, this means no extra week before MLS Cup like there is now.
The advantages of this system are:
  • It would actually reward a team for placing higher in the regular season by providing more home games.
  • 3 guaranteed games, so no possibility of one and done .
  • All teams would have to play the same number of games in order to win the MLS Cup.
  • Group stage could provide more excitement than current format.
  • No extra break before MLS Cup will help fans keep interested.
  • Format changes with adding only 1 game for seeds 1-3.
  • Format doesn't add any extra weeks to the MLS calendar since the extra week break is removed.
  • One game per week allows teams to better manage injuries, providing the best possible lineups.
I think this format would be better for the league. It allows a better showcase of talent while providing some extra excitement with the last group games. It also guarantees a lower chance of a less deserving team pulling an upset (see 2012 Houston Dynamo), but without completely ruling the possibility out.

Let me know what you think of my proposed playoff system in the comments.