The ideal MLS playoff format, 2015 edition

“Get rid of the away-goal tiebreaker!”

“Have a minigame after the second game!”

“I miss shootouts!”

Yes, it’s that time of year. Even the commissioner, Don Garber, has fretted about the away-goal tiebreaker.

So, once again, I’m going to say MLS should use a modified Page playoff system. But I’ll tweak it this year, going up to 10 teams.

In each conference:

Play-in round
#5 at #4

4-5 winner at #3
#2 at #1

3-4-5 winner at 1-2 loser

Semifinal winner at 1-2 winner

Yes, the 1-2 quarterfinal loser gets another chance. That’s a perk of finishing in the top two.

And that’s the beauty of this system. The higher the seed, the more of an advantage a team has.

No more griping about the top seed gaining little advantage in a two-leg series. No more coasting once a team has wrapped up a playoff berth.

The top seed gets home field and another chance with a loss. The second seed gets a second chance and will host its second game, either the semifinal or the final.

The third seed gets to skip the play-in game and host a quarterfinal. The fourth seed gets to host the play-in game.

The fifth seed is a long shot.

Here’s how it would’ve worked this year:


#5 Los Angeles at #4 Seattle. This game was actually played, with Seattle winning 3-2.

Seattle at #3 Portland
#2 Vancouver at #1 Dallas

Seattle-Portland winner at Vancouver-Dallas loser

Semifinal winner at Vancouver-Dallas winner


#5 New England at #4 D.C. United. In the real world, D.C. won this game 2-1.

D.C. at #3 Montreal
#2 Columbus at #1 New York

D.C.-Montreal winner at Columbus-NY loser

Semifinal winner at Columbus-NY winner

The advantages of this system:

  • Regular-season performance is rewarded.
  • Fewer games than current system.
  • No awkward two-leg series. Every game advances one team; most games eliminate one team.

Disadvantages: None.

So there you have it. Again.

The annual request to change the MLS playoff format

This is how the MLS playoffs should be. Home teams listed first.


#1 D.C. United – #2 New England
#3 Columbus – #4 New York, loser eliminated

#1 Seattle – #2 Los Angeles
#3 Salt Lake – #4 Dallas, loser eliminated


D.C. United-New England loser vs. Columbus-New York winner

Seattle-Los Angeles loser vs. Salt Lake-Dallas winner


D.C. United-New England winner vs. Round 2 winner

Seattle-Los Angeles winner vs. Round 2 winner


East winner vs. West winner (or vice versa)

It’s called the Page playoff system (or a slight variant thereof). Every seed gets a unique reward. The top two teams in each conference get a second chance if they lose their first game. The first-place team gets to host that game. The second-place team hosts the next game. The winner of their game hosts the semifinal. The third-place team hosts its first game.

Cool, isn’t it?

You could mix it up a bit if you like. Maybe the losers switch conferences so no team plays another one twice.

I’ve been pushing it for years. Not stopping now.


MLS playoffs: Left brain and right brain battle


Did you see last night’s games? That was AWESOME! Joe Willis coming on and saving a PK in D.C. United’s win, Rafa Marquez melting down, and then that Mario Martinez goal for Seattle? Are you KIDDING me?!

Are you kidding ME? This is making a total mockery of the regular season, just like the MLS playoffs always do. Fifth-seeded Houston just needs to get past D.C. United to reach MLS Cup. The Galaxy went sleep-walking through the regular season again, and now they just need to get past Seattle. What a joke!

Hold on, Buzz Killington. Everyone knows the rules before the season starts. If Houston and L.A. manage to turn it on late in the year when it matters, can we blame them?

So what’s the point of the regular season? Home-field advantage in the second leg? Terrific. All four home teams lost. Bet you feel great for those home fans, Mr. Emotional.

I forget — are you the logical half or the sarcastic one? Look, tell the Chicago Fire the regular season didn’t matter. It’s a league of parity, and then the big games at the end matter.

It’s still not fair.

Sorry, but ultimately, it’s a game. Postponing a game AFTER everyone made the trip from D.C.? Maybe THAT’S unfair. All sports have upsets in the big moments. But all the world’s most important soccer championships are decided by playoffs.

Wrong! The Premier League, La Liga …

The Champions League, the World Cup. You can’t complain about San Jose exiting early unless you’re also willing to gripe about the Netherlands knocking out Brazil in 2010. 

But the World Cup doesn’t have other options. You can’t take all the world’s international soccer teams and have them play in a 200-team league unless you suddenly invent Star Trek-style transporter technology.

That’d be cool!

Let’s focus here. MLS could play a standard balanced schedule in the time it takes to do the regular season and the playoffs. And they could take the Open Cup more seriously.

That’s fine for England. That’s how things evolved. Here, everything builds toward the playoffs, and those games become appointment viewing. With 19 teams in the league now, no one has time to browse all the highlights, much less watch all the games. 

No one else cares. You’re the geek who used to vote in the Player of the Week balloting, so you figured you at least had to check out every highlight.

Whatever. But these games get everyone talking. We got texts last night from a youth soccer parent asking why Bill Hamid was sent off and why Kenny Cooper had to retake the kick. How often does that happen during the regular season?

You’re saying that’s a good thing?

Yeah! It’s contagious excitement! You’re not going to get that for a thrilling seventh-place battle between the Sounders and the Galaxy.

OK, fine. It’s exciting. But I’ll have trouble calling this year’s Cup winners “champions.”

Hey, the Supporters’ Shield is good, too. And I’ll grant you that the playoffs would be fairer if they’d adopt that Page system we’ve been pushing all these years.

You know that’s never going to happen. And what’s to stop another team like Colorado from snoozing its way to another title?

You can snooze through a regular season, too. You take the good with the bad in this sport.

Fine. I’ll just become a track and field fan.

Oh, you mean the sport where it all comes down to what you do at the Olympics? Quick, name the Diamond League winner in the men’s 200.

Um … Usain Bolt?

Wrong! Nickel Ashmeade.



Sounds like waste material at a quarry.

So you feel any better?

Feel? I THINK, pal. And I think this could still be fairer.

OK, fine. Can we at least agree that Marquez getting sent off last night was good for everyone involved?


The annual MLS playoff fretting

Every year, MLS has exciting playoff action, and every year, people complain. Then people complain about the complainers.

But the argument changes a little each year. Especially this year, with the first 10-team playoff in league history. The tournament has produced its share of excitement as always, and it allowed the big-money, big-market, big-name New York Red Bulls to overcome that pesky stretch of winning two out of 20 games. (Hey, they only lost five.)

I’m not completely joking here. One advantage of a playoff format is that it allows a team to sort things out over the course of a season and build toward something big at the end. The Red Bulls might not be the best example, but consider Real Salt Lake, an obviously excellent team that was battered by injuries and a busy schedule. Jason Kreis’s club will face the Galaxy on Sunday in one of those truly outstanding matchups that the playoffs can produce.

Here’s the problem — we have less than 72 hours to build up to that game.

You might not be thinking, “Hey, how does this affect USA TODAY?” But it does. I was able to get a story in Wednesday’s paper on the Galaxy-Red Bulls series and other games — just my third MLS story of the year, which indicates a few more problems. A story on the Salt Lake-Galaxy semifinal would be great, but it can’t be done for any print version of USA TODAY. The Galaxy-Red Bulls game ended at 1 a.m. ET, beyond all reasonable deadlines for the Friday paper. USA TODAY doesn’t publish again until Monday. (Some sports merit online-only coverage on weekends, but MLS isn’t there. Yet.)

Other media outlets have similar problems. Everyone has to scramble to get things ready for a huge game in just three days.

Then there are those other people who have just a couple of days to prepare. What are they called? Oh, right — players.

So to sum up — the biggest games of the season so far will feature two tired teams in a media dead zone.

Tweaking the schedule could help a little bit. But the basic problem is that a 10-team playoff forces another round of games to be squeezed into what is already a narrow window of decent weather in North America.

Everyone has a favorite fix-all for the playoffs. I posted mine at this time last year, and it was ignored as always. The basic idea: Play an Apertura and Clausura season, with a Cup tournament at the end of the Clausura (before the summer break). You could even give the Supporters Shield to an Apertura winner, MLS Cup to the Clausura/playoff winner and an MLS SuperCup to the winner of a big neutral-site game in August, when there’s less competition for attention.

Barring a major shakeup like that, though, the simplest thing to ask would be to scale it back to eight teams. Just not enough time to get those wild cards in the mix.