By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 27, 2022) US Soccer Players – The playoffs are one of Major League Soccer’s enduring traditions. The postseason reliably serves up some of its highest drama and most memorable moments. We’ve seen as much over the first two rounds of this season’s edition. They’ve been an ever-present from MLS’s inception, an essential North American sporting element despite a gradual evolution towards international norms over the decades. So has the debate around them and the constant changes to their format.
The current 14-team, single-elimination bracket in use since 2019, with a pandemic-driven tweak in 2020, adds up to 13 playoff games this year. Switching that field back to the two-legged series used previously would push the total number of matches up to 25.
Then there’s the boldest option on the table. Expand the postseason field to eight teams per conference, then break that into four groups of four in a sort of mini-World Cup setup. The top two teams in each would advance to a single-elimination knockout bracket, adding up to 31 total matches and a championship structure unique among MLS’s counterparts here and abroad.
Is this a smart play, or might too much of a good thing devalue the product? Early reactions have been mixed.
“I like the format currently. I think it’s working just fine,” FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan said in his season-ending press conference on Wednesday. “I understand that there’s conversations about finding different ways to bring more recognition, more important games to the table, is always going to be there. You’re always looking for ways to improve. But having change every year, which, I get COVID kind of forced you into some changes, I would like to see some consistency.”
The Vancouver Whitecaps’ Scottish playmaker Ryan Gauld suggested that the change would be “over-complicating an issue that doesn’t need to be fixed,” calling the status quo “quite fair.”
On one hand, this overhaul can be seen as an obvious next step. If playoffs are foundational and are the most valuable commodity among MLS’s content offerings, figure out ways to serve up more of them. The structure of the season and the tournament that caps it have already changed profoundly since 1996, so it’s not exactly an untouchable institution. Every club craves home playoff games, not only for home-field advantage but the bonus matchday revenue they represent, which was a big factor in the two and three-game formats of the past.
On the other hand sits an array of corresponding concerns, both practical and philosophical. Most urgently, this risks extending the toll on player fitness. A 34-game league slate already interspersed with the usual cup and international competitions is about to add a month-long mega-tourney with Liga MX, the newly expanded Leagues Cup in August. Its impact on the rest of the year remains a question.
Even if it doesn’t fall evenly across the entire player pool, every additional minute of postseason action adds more mileage to the total. While not inconceivable that the investor/operators shorten the regular season to maintain equilibrium, that would probably carry a financial consequence. History suggests it would be unusual. Apart from 2001 and 2020, MLS has reduced its per-team regular-season match total just once, in 2007. That season kicked off more than a month later in the spring than recent campaigns have.
That ties into another key logistical problem. MLS already carries a significantly longer offseason than the elite leagues overseas, which it aspires to equal. As many have pointed out over the years, that can have a knock-on effect on the USMNT and other national teams. Some of this is more or less hard-wired by the incredible diversity of climate across the continent. Frigid winters in Canada and other northern locales effectively drop the curtain in December and don’t raise it again until late February at best.
The challenge of drawing viewers during the United States’ crowded fall-winter sports broadcasting landscape imposes something similar. MLS acknowledged as much when it moved the schedule back a month in 2019, enabled in no small part by streamlining the playoffs to single elimination.
Then there’s the question of FIFA international windows. In a perfect world, MLS would go idle for all of them. That remains a ways off, even if it has gradually done so during the key fall windows lately and offers clubs the option of scheduling around others. The usual three fall windows in September, October, and November will resume in 2023, chopping up the rhythm of MLS’s home stretch and postseason.
Cramming more games into the current parameters would intensify the grind even further. FC Dallas technical director Andre Zanotta noted this on Wednesday.
“I find it difficult with the calendar we have right now, and then increasing with adding a new competition, to have home and away games in the playoffs, or having a group stage,” Zanotta said during a media availability session. “I like the format right now. I think it can be improved, the home and away, I think would be more fair for everybody. Also for the clubs, you have the chance to host a playoff match. But I also understand the league, that the calendar is tight and we have a lot of games, with teams that don’t want to play in the FIFA match (windows). So this all makes things more complicated. You add more games towards the end of the season when players are tired, physically we’re having more injuries and all those things.”
Competitive merit matters too. The MLS Cup playoffs have been adjusted repeatedly in search of the perfect balance between rewarding regular season performance while giving the underdogs enough leeway to spring the surprises that keep things entertainingly unpredictable.
“What I see is that there is excitement in the fan base,” said Dallas head coach and former USMNT assistant Nico Estevez on Wednesday, admitting what a departure it all is from his native Spain. “Stadiums that are packed, cheering, there is a lot of energy, they also like the drama, the PKs, and all these things.… I think it’s more cultural here in the US, because the other sports do a similar thing. And if there is a change, I’m not sure, I don’t know right now if this will help to grow that energy and emotion that it’s having now. Or it will be too much and then it will be less exciting for the fans? I don’t really know.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- 2022 becomes something for Inter Miami to build on
- An important winter beckons for Atlanta United
- Charlotte FC gives MLS plenty to think about in year one
- USMNT World Cup countdowns past and present
Photo by Nashville SC