The History of the MLS Playoff Format

MLS Cup. Credit: Michael Pimentel -

By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 1, 2013) US Soccer Players – Last night, Major League Baseball gave us another take on how to determine who makes the playoffs. With no tiebreaker, two American League teams played an extra game to determine who takes the second of two wildcard spots. The winner plays again on Wednesday, with the winner of that game advancing to the Division Series. In other words, baseball – a sport built around playing multiple games in a series – settles its wildcard problem with single games.

It’s an interesting choice, with the wildcard necessary in a two-league sport with three divisions in each league that insists that the divisions have to count. It takes a minimum of four teams to setup what they call the Division Series, and with it, another riff on the wildcard. The National Football League has four divisions in each conference, but opts for four wildcard teams to extend their playoffs by a round. The National Basketball Association has divisions, but only uses them for scheduling purposes with teams qualifying for the playoffs based on conference standing with no wildcards. It’s the same for the National Hockey League.

For Major League Soccer, it’s taken several transitions to get to the current playoff system. In the beginning, the league divided its ten teams into two conferences, putting the top four from each conference into the playoffs. Yes, that meant 8 of the league’s 10 teams making the playoffs and inviting the expected criticism that it took 32 games to figure out that New England and Colorado were lousy. The league also used best of three series in the conference semifinals and finals. The 1998 expansion simply meant two more teams missing the playoffs, and none of them were the expansion teams.

Things changed in 2000 when Major League Soccer dropped the conferences and went with three divisions. Just like Major League Baseball, an odd number of divisions created a problem. MLS had an easy answer. Instead of wildcard teams, they advanced the top eight teams from a single table. Why they felt the need to divide by divisions is a good question, since it only mattered for scheduling purposes. If everyone already knows going into the season that the schedule lacks balance, well, that sort of takes care of itself.

2001 was the last year for the three-game quarterfinal and semifinal series. In 2002, the 10-team MLS went back to two conferences, but kept the single table to determine the playoffs. That led to every team in the Western Conference making the playoffs, creating a new problem for the league to eventually address. It took all of an offseason for MLS to revert to the original model with the original complaint returning. They also dropped their playoff points system and the two-game conference finals. Did it really take 30 games in 2003 to figure out that Columbus and Dallas weren’t that great? That’s unfair to Columbus, who finished a point out of the playoffs and had a better record than the LA Galaxy who advanced from the West, but that system stayed in place until 2007. That season returned the playoffs to a single table and the league kept that in place through 2010.

What happened to change things in 2010? The same thing that happened in 2002. With MLS at 16 clubs, the Western Conference took six of the eight playoff spots. Once results exposed the obvious flaw in the single-table playoff system for the second time in the league’s history, MLS responded. Unlike 2003, there was an additional tweak. MLS expanded the playoffs to ten teams, five from each conference, and introduced the play-in round.

Just like the wildcard game introduced a year later in Major League Baseball, MLS had two wildcard teams from each conference playoff against each other in a single game to advance. Just like with baseball’s playoff innovation, this created an obvious problem. What does the wildcard game really mean? Is this the beginning of the playoffs or an extension of the regular season? Does it really count until a team advances to the semifinals, the first proper round of the traditional MLS playoffs?

For some, this isn’t much of a question. The playoffs begin when the regular season ends, and that’s especially true for MLS when it took all of a season for the new playoff system to put two wildcard teams in the final.

So what has all of Major League Soccer’s playoff innovation accomplished? It’s basically back where it started. It’s a two-conference league with a balanced playoff system based on conference. Instead of four teams from each conference it’s five plus the wildcard or knockout round, but it’s the same idea that the first round proper of the playoffs starts with the conference semifinal stage. There’s no three game series based on points, but the idea is the same.

It does beg the question why it took so long to get back to the obvious. A league with conferences should take advantage of that and have it lead directly to the playoffs in a balanced format. Just like the NBA and NHL were both doing in 1996.

J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at

More from J Hutcherson:

2 Responses to The History of the MLS Playoff Format

  1. Kip Sullivan says:

    How about putting the top 4 in each conference (keep the play-in game between 4 and 5 if we must) into a round robin group. Each team plays every other 1 time – the top 2 seeds host 2 of their 3 and seeds 3 and 4 host only one. Three points for a win, 1 for a tie, as usual. Can’t use road goals so total goals would be needed as a tiebreaker after head to head. The top seed would host the second seed in the final round (most likely to produce group victor). The final round games would need to be played simltaneously. This method rewards the best teams throughout the season with preferential seeding, and it creates a tournament atmosphere in terms of point totals, scenarios and required simultaneous final round. The sole winners from each conference advance to the final.

    • It’s certainly a different solution that following the lead of the other major American sports, but it’s asking a lot of the general sports fan that MLS works to win over. Though it’s still a league dependent on ticket revenue, it would very much like to have the situation of the other major North American leagues where television rights and sponsorship dwarf ticket revenue. There’s also the old issue of stadium availability. Seattle is the biggest home draw in the league and they share with an NFL team. ‘Share’ probably isn’t the right word there. They play around the NFL schedule that takes precedence. Vancouver and New England also have the shared stadium issue. Toronto will likely be sharing with the CFL. StubHub Center has to schedule around the class schedule at Cal State Dominguez Hills. If NYCFC ends up at Yankee Stadium, that’s another shared stadium with soccer as the added attraction. Granted, that’s a lot less conflict than the old days, but it’s still seven out of 20 teams including two of the biggest draws (Seattle and the Galaxy). So those would be the two obvious problems. Still, it is a different way of looking at a playoff that doesn’t shout ‘gimmick’ like a few of the alternatives.