Major League Soccer could be close to finalizing a tweak to its playoff format that will offer additional reward, albeit slight, to clubs finishing higher in the regular season standings. SI.com understands that MLS is working on giving the higher-seeded team in the two-game conference semifinals and finals the option of hosting either the first or second leg.
“Ultimately, it’ll get passed,” a source said of the new rule. “I would think it’ll be finalized before the start of the season.”
Another source expressed a bit more caution, saying that a "majority" favors the change but that "by no means was there overwhelming consensus."
The league's competition committee and board of governors would have to sign off on the rule change before it takes affect.
Since MLS dropped the best-of-three playoff format following the 2002 season, the higher seed has traveled for the opening leg of each home-and-home series. Club and league officials believed that hosting the second game offered an advantage, especially because it ensured the team with the better regular season record would contest extra time or penalty kicks before a home crowd.
But a decade’s sample size suggests that playing the second leg at home doesn’t offer a significant boost. Clubs hosting the decider have won 26 of 48 home-and-home series, or just more than 54 percent. On 10 occasions, the second match has gone past 90 minutes. The home team advanced six times.
An expanded playoff format that has featured a knockout round and two-leg conference finals since 2012, along with the league’s 34-game regular season, Thanksgiving (in the U.S), the non-neutral site MLS Cup final and FIFA’s November international window, have made scheduling increasingly difficult. Commissioner Don Garber used the “square peg into a round hole” metaphor last week to describe the problem.
If enacted, the new wrinkle would allow a higher-seeded club to prioritize scheduling (and perhaps sales) over the minimal competitive advantage associated with hosting the second leg, if it so chooses.
Last fall’s Eastern Conference semifinal is a prime example of a series that might have played out differently if the higher seed had some flexibility. It’s likely that the New York Red Bulls would have preferred to force the Houston Dynamo to play on the road just three days after defeating Montreal in the knockout round. Instead, Houston stayed in Texas and tied top-seeded New York, 2-2, in the Sunday afternoon opener. The Supporters' Shield winners then hosted the decider on a Wednesday night, which might have impacted attendance, and fell in extra time.
The league has no plans to tinker further with the 10-team, four-round postseason format. But it is looking hard at scheduling, with an eye toward avoiding the problems that plagued the playoffs last fall. Playing 12 games in the first 12 days was exhausting, and then the two-week gap before and after the conference final deciders robbed the postseason of its momentum.
MLS currently is examining a few options that might solve some of those issues without compressing the regular season, which would extend an already-lengthy winter break for the clubs that fail to qualify for the playoffs. Among those possibilities are:
1 – Break with tradition and schedule playoff games over Thanksgiving weekend.
2 – Reduce the layoff between the conference finals and MLS Cup final to one week from two. The league is confident the host team won’t need more than a few days to sell out its stadium.
3 – Play through the FIFA date. Last fall’s World Cup qualifying playoffs made scheduling MLS games the weekend of Nov. 16-17 impossible. That won’t be an issue next year, although the L.A. Galaxy might bristle at the thought of losing Robbie Keane to a Euro ’16 qualifier.
4 – Push the MLS Cup final back further, perhaps all the way to the weekend before Christmas. There’s a definite understanding at MLS HQ that the league’s most important games deserve a legitimate showcase and a more reasonable schedule, and club owners are willing to be flexible in an effort to make that happen. Meanwhile, progress on the new playoff hosting rule represents an increasing appreciation for the grind of the regular season. Starting this year, the road to MLS Cup will be a bit more forgiving.