By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 19, 2018) US Soccer Players - In the beginning, there were playoffs. From the very launch of Major League Soccer back in 1996, a postseason playoff tournament decides the league’s champion. At no point in the history of America’s top division was there any real thought given to doing things differently.
Sure, European leagues prefer to crown a winner on the basis of whole season performance. The top point-winner takes the trophy on a victory lap following a schedule with one home and one away match against every team in the competition. America does it differently.
The regular season qualifies teams for the playoff tournament. Before MLS, that was the way of soccer in the United States, with the original North American Soccer League serving as the leading example. The country’s other sports provided the foundation for soccer’s playoff structure. Every other major American professional league running a postseason of their own. If there as a strong philosophical argument to made against playoffs, no one in the leadership of the NBA, NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball was paying any mind.
When MLS set up their version of the postseason tournament back in its first year, eight out 10 teams qualified. From the start, the regular season proved to be of questionable value. Despite bettering DC United by 12 points over 32 games, the Tampa Bay Mutiny fell to DC over two legs in the Eastern Conference final. United would then go on to defeat the LA Galaxy 3-2 in overtime for the League’s first championship. Defender Eddie Pope scored a golden goal in the 94th minute.
While the number of teams that qualify for the postseason in MLS has fluctuated, it has never dropped below 50 percent of clubs. A format that pushed two teams towards a one-off final remains the same. A single final game has been the law of the league since that first MLS Cup in a downpour at Foxborough Stadium in Massachusetts.
What has changed has been the format ahead of the East vs. West final. Even the “East vs. West” description is inadequate for a part of the League’s playoff history. Between 1996 and 2002, MLS used three-game series in the first two round of the playoffs, with a point system (three points for a one, one for a draw) determining the series winner. From 2003 until 2010 the first round (conference semifinals) became a two-game, aggregate scoreline series.
Just to make things more complicated, MLS retained the conference split but allowed teams to “crossover” during the playoffs. Starting in 2007 the top few teams in each conference (two in 2007, 2009 and 2010, three in 2008) made the postseason tournament, with the balance of the field of eight made of up of the highest point-winners regardless of conference.
In 2008 that format led to an MLS Cup final featuring the Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls, two Eastern Conference teams. In 2009, the final pitted the LA Galaxy versus fellow Western Conference side Real Salt Lake.
When the league expanded the playoffs to 10 teams for the 2011 season, it added a “knockout round," a one-game first round clash between the lowest ranked qualifiers for the postseason. For four seasons the knockout round involved a single game in each conference. In 2015, the knockout round expanded to two games per conference. From the conference final round on, the tried-and-true two-legged format remained in place.
As of Monday, the tried-and-true is now a thing of the past. MLS has changed the format again, perhaps more dramatically than at any time since doing away with three-game series. The aggregate two-legged playoff rounds, with their guaranteed home games for the lower seed and the away goals tiebreaker, are history.
From here until the league decides to tweak the format again, knockout-style soccer will determine the annual MLS Cup champion. On paper, the switch should incentivize clubs to finish higher in the conference standings, the better to ensure home games in the playoffs and the advantage that comes with them. The league pointed directly to that supposed benefit of the switch in the news release issued Monday afternoon.
Historically, higher seeded teams advanced or won 67.3 percent of the 49 single-game elimination playoff matches. That includes MLS Cup matches for which the higher seed earned the right to host.
If teams needed more reason to go all out in the regular season, the league has built in an extra advantage for the first place team in each conference. Finishing at the top of the standings conveys a bye to the second round. One team in each conference needs a bye because the total number of teams East and West expands to seven, a total of 14 overall.
That means 58 percent of clubs will qualify for the postseason in the 24-team MLS in 2018. When the league reaches the currently planned cap of 28, half of the competition will still get a chance to play for a championship.
Regardless of what the league’s press release says, with home teams holding a significant advantage in knockout playoff games over MLS history, the decision to go to single elimination introduces more randomness into the format. Over 180 minutes in a two-legged series, the better team is more likely to prevail. In a knockout setting, a single mistake or a single decision by the referee determine the outcome. If the goal of the playoffs is crown a worthy champion based on performance across the breadth of the campaign, the change in playoff format just made that much more difficult.
Perhaps more troubling for neutrals and the league’s television partners, the new format has the potential to reward negative play. Lower seeds on the road now have even less incentive to go for goal than before and could conceivably bunker their way to a championship.
This was not MLS looking for a solution to a non-existent problem, however. For all the concern over enlarging the field, the league’s choice to move to a single-elimination format is as much about the calendar as it is about rewarding mediocrity.
Under the previous format, the November international break broke up the playoff season. Following the conference semifinal round, all momentum and excitement generated by the postseason stopped dead in its tracks. Even an MLS less populated by foreign internationals than it is now faced the problem of key players leaving for national team duty and potentially returning injured or fatigued.
That problem is more pressing as the league signs more internationals and aims higher for talent. The new format, along with some extra midweek dates during the regular season, allows MLS to conduct the whole of the playoff tournament before the November internationals. It might also save the league a few excruciatingly cold MLS Cup finals with the championship game moved up a month.
The history of the MLS Cup playoffs is one of change. The chances are good that this format won't last all that long either. The fans might never get a chance to get used to anything because in this league nothing will ever stay the same.
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