Beat the rush: Debate the MLS playoff format now

Major League Baseball has copied Major League Soccer’s playoff format, and Sports Law Blog’s Howard Wasserman proclaims it to be a good thing:

The difference this year is that both the Rangers and Orioles had a real incentive to catch the team ahead of them on the final day, in order to avoid that one-game playoff.  In previous years, by contrast, the Orioles would not have cared about catching the Yankees in the final two days of the season; they only would have worried about staying ahead of the Rangers, then getting to play in the division series. So, credit where credit is due–baseball made changes that create the right incentives.

To relate that to MLS, which has two divisions rather than MLB’s six: The race for third place is important. It’s slightly less important than the race for fifth place (the last playoff spot) and slightly more important than the race for first.

But baseball purists, if any remain, would say 10 teams out of 30 are simply too many to take to the playoffs. In MLS, taking 10 out of 19 is surely too many.

In baseball, the weakest playoff teams have an 88-74 record. That’s not bad. In MLS, the Vancouver Whitecaps are clinging to the last playoff spot with a mediocre record of 11-12-9.

The bloated MLS playoffs are also a scheduling problem. We could be playing another couple of weeks of the regular season this fall, and perhaps that would have left time for a reasonable summer break.

The other issue: Incentives. In each sport, the first-place teams don’t get enough of a reward. If the East ended today, Sporting Kansas City would play the winner of the wild-card game between D.C. United (51 pts.) and Houston (49). For their effort in finishing first, they avoid a matchup with Chicago (53).

If you’ve known me for a while, you know it’s time for my Annual Page Playoff System Push. The incentives for each place would be:

  • 1st seeds (best conference champion): Home games throughout, must lose twice to be eliminated
  • 2nd seeds (other conference champion):  Home games unless paired with No. 1, must lose twice to be eliminated
  • 3rd-4th seeds: Home game in second round or semifinal, must lose twice to be eliminated
  • 5th-6th seeds: Home game in first round
  • 7th-8th seeds: You made it. That’s all

So every place has an incentive.

Next, we’ll figure out how to make this work with a split season!


Settling all MLS dilemmas in one easy fix (maybe)

The big issues coming out of MLS Cup weekend, among the media and the hard-core supporters (most of whom are “media” in some sense, even if it’s just a prolific Twitter habit) were:

1. This game is ending far too late. Fans are leaving, and no one’s going to make deadline. And maybe they should revisit the whole neutral-site idea, anyway.

2. 10 teams in the playoffs next year? Really?

3. Hmm, the league is considering the formation of a committee that would study the idea of forming a task force to do an in-depth look into asking its competition committee to weigh the prospects of “changing to the international calendar.” (The “international” calendar, of course, means “Western Europe’s calendar.”)

4. Hey, cool, I didn’t know your book was out! Can I get it on Kindle?

Simple issues first: I’m inquiring into issue #4, and the game simply needs to be played earlier. No MLS Cup final should kick off at 8:55 p.m. on a Sunday night. It’s too late. Possibly too cold. The ideal time, particularly if the game is on an NFL Sunday, is probably 6:30 or 7. People can flip over to MLS after the afternoon NFL games, then flip to the Sunday night game when the soccer’s done. Families can attend the game and still have a chance of getting home to get some sleep before work or school the next day.

But should MLS Cup stay in November? Here’s one suggestion surely doomed to fail:

– To meet FIFA’s insistence on playing within the “international calendar,” split the season into a fall Apertura and spring Clausura like so many Latin American leagues. (The wise man they call The Perfesser agrees.) But these won’t quite be your traditional Apertura and Clausura (in part because the calendar and the number of teams simply won’t allow it).

– The Apertura winner earns the right to host MLS Cup the following summer. MLS will still have months to plan a big event with all the attendant conventions (supporters, retailers, sponsors, club execs, etc.), which wouldn’t be possible if the playoffs went to the highest-seeded finalist as determined one week earlier. But the right to host the final will be earned on the field. The host team might even be playing in the game.

– Here’s one trick: To let everyone play a balanced schedule in the Apertura, we have to split the league into two 10-team conferences. The Apertura will be 18 weeks, from early August to late November — typically the best MLS months for attendance. (Yes, TV windows are minimal, but we’ll have to make do with Thursday night games through the Apertura and then stress the Clausura for TV.)

– So how will we know who wins the Apertura and hosts MLS Cup? That will be the first game of the Clausura, which runs 10 weeks from early March to mid-May, and features only interconference games. We’ll start with a bang by pairing the Apertura conference winners to determine the Cup host. The host city still has a couple of months to prepare.

– Records are cumulative. They don’t reset for the Clausura. After 28 games, everyone will have played each team in its conference twice and each team in the other conference once.

– The playoffs will usually run four weeks using the modified Aussie rules system I’ve already put forth. The top four seeds are the Apertura winner, the top team in each conference and the team with the next-best record. Then we have four wild cards.

(Option B has six teams: The Apertura champ and team with top overall record in a four-team modified Aussie rules playoff, with four wild cards playing off to reach that round. Option C: Go straight to four teams.)

Oh, that 10-team playoff format? Forget it. If you’re taking a winter break and summer break, you don’t have time to play all those games.

In fact, in World Cup years, you don’t have time for playoffs at all. Go straight to MLS Cup.

So in simple terms, without all the argumentation: It’s a 28-game season with an 18-game Apertura played all within the conferences. The conference winners face off in the first game of the Clausura for the right to host MLS Cup, and then you have playoffs as described above.

Nothing’s perfect. The Clausura start and Apertura championship game take place during college hoops conference championship week, and it won’t help to move it 1-2 weeks in either direction. CONCACAF Champions League teams play 24 games in the 18 weeks of the Apertura. (The good news: If they get to the knockout rounds, the schedule is a little easier during the skimpier Clausura.)

But this maximizes many things the league would like to accomplish:

  1. Balanced schedule, more or less.
  2. Many teams involved in playoff chase.
  3. Time to plan MLS Cup and attendant conventions.
  4. Incentive to win right to host MLS Cup.
  5. Playoff system that spreads out a lot of home games.
  6. Winter break to avoid freezing.
  7. Ballyhooed “international calendar.”

Have at it.

For further reading: Brian Straus’ group-stage playoff suggestion and Paul Kennedy’s argument in favor of a fall-to-spring season, complete with the suggestion to phase it in during the 2014 World Cup year.

A modest MLS playoff proposal

Complaints about the MLS playoff format are as much a part of the American soccer landscape as chants about pies are a part of the English scene. Beneath the hysteria over New York or Salt Lake winning a geographically imprecise conference title, some of the complaints are legit:

– Hosting the second leg of a two-leg series is a middling advantage after a long season.

– Colorado finished seventh in the league and yet will host a conference final.

The league likes to give everyone a home game and put an emphasis on elimination games rather than extended series. Great, but another method works just as well. That method is borrowed from football.

Not that football. The Aussie kind.

Australian Rules Football uses an eight-team version of the Page playoff system that is popular in a few offbeat sports such as softball, curling and yachting.

The principles are these:

– The top four teams must be beaten twice to be eliminated. The bottom four only get one loss.

– The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are guaranteed two home games. No. 3 through No. 6 get at least one.

So if MLS had put this system in place this year, the schedule would’ve been as follows (home teams listed first):

First round

– No. 1 Los Angeles vs. No. 4 Dallas
– No. 2 Salt Lake vs. No. 3 New York
– No. 5 Columbus vs. No. 8 San Jose (loser out)
– No. 6 Seattle vs. No. 7 Columbus (loser out)

Second round (both losers out)

– LA-Dallas loser vs. Columbus-SJ winner
– RSL-NY loser vs. Seattle-Clb winner

Semifinals (both losers out)

RSL-NY winner vs. first 2nd round winner
– LA-Dallas winner vs. second 2nd round winner

MLS Cup: Semifinal winners at highest remaining seed

The system is relatively simple, and it rewards regular-season play. The top teams get an advantage without being idle so long that they might get cold. What else could you want?

(MLS fans will surely think of something, of course!)