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Official: MLS adopts USL playoff format

MLS is changing its playoff format, moving to a structure that looks very similar to USL’s current post-season tournament.

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MLS: Orlando City SC at New York Red Bulls Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

A tradition almost as old as MLS itself is the changing of MLS playoff formats.

As tipped by Miki Turner for The Athletic in November - and treated pretty much as an open secret by the league ever since Turner got the jump on its official announcement - MLS has decided it is time for another change to its post-season in 2019.

Call it the USL era of the MLS playoffs, since USL has been cheerfully running a short-but-sweet single-elimination playoff tournament since (at least) 2011.

Any change will bring pros and cons and is unlikely to please everyone. This particular adjustment to the playoff schedule is arguably a little more dramatic than most in MLS’ history, since it completely eliminates the home-and-away series that have been a pretty much constant feature of the league’s post-season.

MLS is promoting the format change as “rewarding regular-season success”, because under the new rules the higher seed - i.e. the team with the better regular-season record - will always host the one-and-done match-up with a lower seed. This ends debate over whether hosting the second leg of a two-legged series is a true “reward” for performing well in the regular-season.

In MLS, most teams - certainly those good enough to make the cut for the playoffs - are pretty good at home, so home advantage in a one-off game is significant.

Indeed, (former OaM contributor - Hi, Tom! Love your work!),’s Tom Bogert has crunched the numbers, comparing the winning percentage of higher seeds in both formats (since the league has long used a little bit of both in its post-season):

In one-game playoff matches the higher seed had a .673 winning percentage in 49 games compared to the .551 winning percentage in 78 two-legged series over the years.

Fair enough.

There’s an odd logic to the idea that the playoffs need to be improved so that the better teams in the regular season more regularly win in the post-season. Despite MLS’ insistence to the contrary, there is incentive to win the regular season: the Supporters’ Shield and the CONCACAF Champions League place that comes with it. To suggest that the playoffs lose legitimacy because results can’t be predicted by regular-season performances is to suggest one is more interested in regular-season results anyway - in which case, just allow yourself to be excited when your team wins the league (admittedly a tricky proposition in the current era if you’re not a New York Red Bulls fan because RBNY wins the Shield more or less every other year at present).

Nonetheless, the format change allows MLS to address other issues.

In recent years, the league’s playoff tournament had stretched itself into the first week of December. With an international break in November - for which the league had to pause or accept that its playoffs would be lacking several star players - it meant the post-season had a stop-start quality, losing momentum in mid-November as the race for MLS Cup was put on hold for a week or two.

The new format allows for a condensed tournament that will fit between the October and November international windows. No more waiting around for the MLS playoffs to conclude after November internationals, no more trying to figure out what to do about Thanksgiving: the new tournament - at least in 2019 - will start in mid-October and be concluded by early November. It will be a three-week sprint rather than what had become a six-week, stop-start jog from the end of October to the playoffs’ early-December finale.

That will mean the regular season has to be a little shorter: the league will wrap up at the start of October rather than near the end, clearing space between the autumn international windows for the re-booted post-season tournament.

The shortened regular season was also flagged by Miki Turner last month, with the news that fans should brace for more mid-week games as MLS tries to cram its season into one less month.

That will challenge squad depth, since more mid-week games and less time in general to play the 34-game regular-season schedule will mean less recovery time between matches for players and each and every club. Throw in the demands of a good run in CONCACAF Champions League or US Open Cup (or both), and there will be several clubs hoping their rosters are deep enough to compete on all fronts - or choosing to mail in their bids for one trophy or another.

The shorter season also raises the question of what clubs that don’t make the playoffs - whose season will be over by the start of October - will do with all the free time they’ve suddenly gained.

For some observers, the prospect of an October-March off-season has caused panic about the integrity of the November international window:

Others have suggested that MLS - while under no obligation to be in any way concerned about what national teams are doing with their Novembers - may have noticed the long gap between competitions it is creating for some of its clubs:

And it has also been suggested that the league will remedy the matter by bringing forward the start of the regular season, once it has cleared the hurdle of short-term scheduling commitments:

MLS is entering the last year of its current Collective Bargaining Agreement with its players, so there is also some good sense in setting up at least one playoff cycle with the new format before the league sits down to renegotiate the CBA in earnest. Players and the league will have experienced the strengths and weaknesses of the new format, and any issues that can only be resolved by rewriting the CBA can be addressed with the benefit of informed perspectives on both sides of the negotiating table. Even if the new CBA is agreed well in advance of the next post-season, it will at least be negotiated with all eyes on the new structure of the league’s competitions.

The new playoff format also anticipates the league’s relentless expansion. FC Cincinnati will join MLS in 2019, boosting the total number of teams in the league to 24. David Beckham’s long-awaited MLS venture - Inter Miami FC - is expected to join the league in 2020, along with a presently-unnamed Nashville franchise. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said he expects the league’s 27th and 28th teams to be confirmed in the next year or so, and he’s currently entertaining the thought that there is no reason for expansion to stop at 28 teams.

The new format is potentially a little more agile - MLS could squeeze in another round of games if it really wanted to - and has already been expanded. In 2018, 12 teams from the 23-team league made the playoffs; in 2019, there will be 14 teams in the hunt for MLS Cup.

The expansion of the playoff field before the league has even seen its 24th team play an official MLS match has caused some concern among those who favor the idea that post-season places be limited to the truly high-performing teams in MLS. In 2019 - as has been the case for some time, to be fair - more than 50% of the teams in the league will make the playoffs. Seven of 12 teams in each conference will be competing for MLS Cup next season.

More than one decidedly average side will be in the post-season next year; but that is the case nearly every year in MLS: in 2018, to use just the most recent example, Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake made the playoffs having one just one more game than they lost in the regular season and with negative goal differences.

There are a few other questions raised by the new format. For example: is it preferable not to re-seed after every round (so the highest seed remaining always plays the lowest seed remaining), as has been determined for at least the 2019 tournament? Is it at all problematic that the fixed-bracket structure means the four or five seed in each conference will not be able to host a Conference semifinal (because it plays the top seed in that stage of the tournament) but the six seed potentially could (if it upsets the three seed and the seven seed beats the two seed in the preceding round)?

Fair to assume that there will be more tinkering with the playoff format over time.

As some long-time observers have already noted, RBNY has a habit of being on the wrong side of almost every change the league makes to the MLS Cup tournament:

But there are reasons to be cheerful for the New York Red Bulls.

First and foremost, the format does offer considerable advantage to the top-seeded teams: RBNY has been really good at winning a high seed entering the playoffs in recent years, and really good at winning at home.

In the nine seasons since Red Bull Arena opened in 2010, the Red Bulls have finished the regular season at the top of the Eastern Conference on five occasions, and won the league three times in that stretch: it already feels like the team is a solid contender for some home playoff games next year.

Also, the only time the team has ever made it to the MLS Cup Final - 2008 - was a down year in the regular season (RBNY finished its league schedule with a losing record) that saw the Red Bulls enter the playoffs as the lowest seed in the Western Conference (it was a very different post-season qualification set-up). The team drew the first leg of its Conference semifinal series with Houston Dynamo, 1-1: meaning it was going to have to try to get a result on the road - and RBNY beat Houston 3-0 on Houston. There followed a Conference final on the road against Real Salt Lake: RBNY won, 1-0. The MLS Cup Final against Columbus Crew didn’t go nearly as well, but the Red Bulls’ best-ever playoff run - at least in terms of progress to the final game of the MLS season - was achieved by winning something resembling two knockout games away from home.

Best news of all for Red Bulls fans, perhaps, is the fact that this new MLS playoff format is basically the current USL playoff format. RBNY has famously never won MLS Cup, but the Red Bulls II team won USL Cup in just the second season of its existence - in 2016. And it has been to the Conference Final - the game before the USL Cup Final - every year since.

Whatever its strengths or weaknesses, this particular tournament set-up is one with which RBNY’s younger players are familiar and have proven themselves pretty good at. The only better omen for the Red Bulls would be if MLS kindly included Swope Park Rangers in its next round of expansion.