MLS Spotlight: MLS Cup Playoff System is not broken

The New York Red Bulls won't win MLS Cup. They cannot blame the MLS playoff format.

Staff Writer

The New York Red Bulls joined the list of Supporters Shield winners who failed to carry their regular season success into the playoffs. When that list gets its almost annual amendment, the question arises. Does MLS properly reward Supporters Shield winners in the playoffs? The answer that follows is usually a resounding no — followed by a solution to that issue.

The problem is, no solution is necessary because the playoff system is not flawed.

The playoffs are, by design, a marathon comprised of several sprints. The end game of this design is to show which team has the stamina, discipline and talent to be awarded MLS Cup champions. A team needs to be capable of quickly turning around from one intense series to another, keep themselves away from yellow-card accumulation and just be good enough to beat three or four different teams.

The latter explanation is why the current MLS playoff system is fine just the way it is. There has not been a truly dominant team in MLS for a few seasons as evidenced by the fact that only two teams in the DP era have completed the MLS double — Columbus in 2008, LA in 2011. In both of those instances, the Supporters Shield winner won by more than three points. Each of these teams also cruised through the playoffs as neither team lost a single game. These teams are outliers.

None of the 19 teams competing this season in MLS asserted themselves as the dominant team in the league. The Red Bulls might have won the Supporters Shield but there was hardly any instance where they were the consensus pick to win the MLS Cup as well. The same went for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2012. Both teams were eliminated in the conference semifinals.

You could say that both teams caught a raw deal. The Red Bulls faced the playoff savvy Houston Dynamo while the Earthquakes faced the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy. Both are tough matchups — especially for a number one seed. The issue with trying to help the number one seed avoid a matchup like that is that you are rewarding a team that does not deserved to be rewarded any more.

The Supporters Shield winner gets home field advantage and the right to host the MLS Cup Final if they get there. That’s enough of a reward for a team in any league in any sport. Any further tampering would not only alter the competitive nature of the MLS Cup playoffs but pervert the league’s entire structure.

MLS’ current structure creates, slightly artificially, parity. The most well-known example of this is the salary cap which guarantees that money does not guarantee success — especially this year as the final four teams competing are in the middle of MLS’ payroll table. The idea of parity is a motif MLS likes very much since an unpredictable, dramatic league will attract audiences. The playoffs illustrate this fact perfectly. Trying to skew the current format would take that element away, attract conspiracy theories and make the playoffs less exciting. A triple whammy for MLS.

The fact there are no real dominant teams in MLS this season is a sign that the current structure is being effective. However, it will be very intriguing to see what happens when the league’s salary restrictions are loosened. That will allow for a team to pay for better players and give them potential to top the regular season table with ease. When that happens, they will actually benefit from the playoff system that is currently in place since the gap between number one seed and the play-in winner will be much bigger than it is now thus allowing top seeded teams to enjoy an advantage.

A structural change to the MLS Cup playoff format would be a myopic solution to a problem MLS does not have. The current playoff format highlights the pros and cons to having parity throughout the league but that is what the league wants — parity. The onus is on the team to emerge from the chaos generated by a level playing field and win.

Exactly how the playoffs are supposed to be.

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  • Juberish

    The problem isn’t the “playoff system” but the schedule. The schedule blows.

  • Gruff and Manly Bob

    Disagree w/ a few points here. As for rewarding high seeded teams, if you are going with a US playoff system, that is how we roll here. That’s typical. Also home field advantage should be home weekend game,not a wed night game, though we turned out a good crowd. Also one division 2 days rest, another 2 days, then there will be two weeks and two weeks, losing momentum. There is no flow. It’s confusing for casual fans. It all appears so very random. It’s not the reason the Red Bulls or anyone else crashed out but it’s not the best thing for the league.

  • thumbs

    Id love to see a change of Format for the MLS when we get to 24 teams. My idea would go like this:
    1. Get rid of the Conferences. Go to four regional leagues/ Divisions of 6 teams each ( The goal should ultimately be 4 divisions of 10 teams each)
    2. Each divisional rival play each other 4 times, and play 2 teams from each division for a total of 26 Regular season games. ( Less is more here, this will give the Open Cup and CCL more importance and will fit North American weather cycles better, allow for Championship game in beginning of November)
    3. For Cross Divisional Schedule will be set up as follows: First Place and Last Place teams from previous year will play each other, Second Place and Fifth Place teams from previous year play and etc for remaining places.
    4. When a team from one division plays another , their respective division will earn points from the result. 3 Pts for a win, 1 Pt for Tie, 0 for loss. The points will rank each division according to the amount of points they earn. Ex a team from div A beats a team from Div B, Then Div A gets 3 Pts.
    5. At the end of the season the top three teams in each division makes the tournament for MLS Cup.
    6. The teams are seeded as follows the Divisions are ranked 1 to 4 according to points . The first place teams are seeded 1 to 4 , with the top ranked Division champion being the first seed , 2nd place teams are seeded 5 to 8 with 2nd place team from top ranked division taking 5th seed , etc.all the to the 12 th seed
    7. Teams 1 to 4 get a first round bye, teams play a two legged elimination. except for final which is a single elimination.

    I think this will be a lot more exciting system and the playoffs will be more like a Champions League tournament than constantly playing the same teams over and over , and then having to play them again in the playoffs ” for real”

  • James

    Just give us a group stage already, MLS.

  • All great points but where is the thrill of rooting for the underdog if everyone is an underdog? And seeing the underdog win?

  • Tony

    I stopped reading your article when u write playoff savy dynamo. Come on this team does not play and are plainly riding on luck!
    The problem with the post season is the refs. Any other sport and the refs would be under a microscope. In mls they help teams advance and are Mvps and they go in unscrutinized by reporters

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