This story initially appeared on SI.com in September 2011.
With two months to go in an eight-month season, it's fair to say that by most standards MLS has enjoyed a good season. The level of play slowly keeps improving. League-wide attendance is about to set a new record. Due to smart expansion, a stadium boom and soccer's huge popularity in the Pacific Northwest, MLS has more and more games that look and sound and feel major league.
Are there problems? Sure. But I can't think of one that's more important for MLS's owners to fix than the league's playoff structure. Three of the past six MLS Cup champions simply haven't felt deserving, in large part because:
1. Too many teams make the playoffs, 2. Regular-season excellence isn't rewarded nearly enough in the postseason, 3. The three-round, four-game playoff bracket has turned the playoffs into a lottery where every team has roughly the same chance of winning.
This year's slightly modified playoff structure isn't any better. Ten (up from eight) of MLS' 18 teams will make the postseason, with six receiving automatic bids (for finishing in the top three of the Eastern or Western Conferences) and the teams with the next four best records earning wild-card berths. The wild cards will stage a one-game play-in, and from there it's the same bracket as in previous years, which defines unrewarding -- for everyone.
The big problem this year is highlighted by the dominance of the Western Conference. With everyone playing a balanced 34-game schedule (facing every other team home and away), MLS's top four teams are all in the West: Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Seattle and Dallas.
What does that mean? It means there's more incentive to finish third in the woeful East than first (and avoid meeting the No. 4 West team in the conference semifinals). It means the team with the eighth-best MLS record (currently D.C. United, based on points per game) has a far easier playoff road than the team with the fourth-best record (Dallas), simply due to geography. It means the team with the second- or third-best MLS record (currently Salt Lake and Seattle) will be out of the playoffs before we've reached the final four.
And it means the teams with the two top regular-season records have zero chance of meeting in the MLS Cup final.
That's not just imbalanced. That's laughable.
What's the solution? I'm not one of the people who think MLS should drop the playoffs and go with a single table like most European leagues. Playoffs are more exciting, and playoffs done the right way are a rewarding way to crown a deserving champion, as we've seen in so many other U.S. sports.
But there's a much better playoff structure MLS could use, one that could start as soon as next year and remain in place permanently, no matter how many teams MLS adds to the league in the future. The idea (first proposed by Brian Straus, now of The Sporting News) is this: two World Cup-style four-team groups followed by a four-team bracket with league semifinals and a one-game MLS Cup final.
Here's how it would work. You'd keep the Eastern and Western Conferences. As I'll explain below in my idea for how to schedule a 20-team league, a regular-season schedule weighted with in-conference games would limit the cross-country travel that I think is a problem in the current setup. If MLS wants to hand trophies to the conference winners, then it can do so based on the regular season. Then the playoffs can start.
To make MLS owners happy we'll keep it a 10-team postseason and have the fourth- and fifth-place teams in each conference stage a one-game play-in. The groups will then look like this:
West 4 (winner of play-in between West 4 and West 5)
East 4 (winner of play-in between East 4 and East 5)
Just like the World Cup, each team will play a game against the other teams in its group. But (unlike the current system) there will be a big home-field advantage for the higher seeds to reward regular-season success. The top seed in the group will host all three of its group games; the No. 2 seed will host two; the No. 3 seed will host one; and the No. 4 seed will hit the road for all three of its group games.
World Cup-style groups prevent one fluky early result (remember Switzerland beating Spain?) from being fatal. The East-West cross-pollination will create national interest, and the group format means fans of one team in the group will still intensely watch the group games that don't involve their team. Having the final group games take place at the same time will also create some real excitement if the group finish is still up for grabs.
The top two teams in Group A and Group B will advance to the MLS semifinals, which will pit A1 vs. B2 and B1 vs. A2. The semis will be played over two games, home and away, decided by total goals (with the away-goal rule not being used) and, if necessary, extra time and penalty kicks. The first game will be played at the stadium of the second-place group finisher. I'm O.K. with a two-game semifinal, but I also like my man Straus' idea: If the A1 or B1 team outright wins the first leg on the road, it goes straight to the final and the second leg doesn't happen. That would be an incentive for the players to earn a few more days of rest and to create an open game in the first leg.
The MLS Cup final would be a one-game affair. Ideally, it would take place at the stadium of the finalist with the better regular-season record, but I'd be fine with a neutral-site final if it's that much easier for the league to plan long in advance.
So there you have it: A far more equitable MLS playoff structure in which the two top regular-season teams could always meet in the final; in which regular-season excellence is rewarded with sufficient home-field advantage; in which the playoffs would last only six weekends (and a midweek game for the play-in round), not much longer than the current four; and, not least, in which the ultimate winner can be assured it deserves to be called the MLS champion. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
But there's another important element that goes along with this, which brings me to my plan for ...
MLS has a couple other significant structural issues. One, its season doesn't last long enough. As U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has noted recently, not getting enough games is a disadvantage for U.S. national team players in MLS compared to players in European leagues. Last season, for example, Mexico's Javier Hernández made 44 appearances in competitive games for Manchester United over a season lasting nine months and two weeks. In MLS, Brek Shea made 30 appearances in competitive games for Dallas over a 2010 season that lasted eight months (a full six weeks shorter than Hernández's season).
Simply put, MLS' season needs to last longer and have more games.
Two, North America is too big and the travel distances are too long for teams to be at their best playing two games a week in a balanced league schedule (one game home and away against every other team in the league). If you ask any European star who has joined MLS, they'll tell you one of their biggest adjustments is the extended travel in the league. And you'd better believe the travel has an impact. It's no coincidence that this season MLS road teams traveling three time zones for a game have a winning percentage of .362, below the league road percentage of .389. (If you take D.C. United's surprising 3-0-1 record as a cross-country road team out of the equation, the difference is a lot bigger.)
So how do you a structure a regular-season schedule for MLS that addresses those two issues -- travel distance and number of games? I've come up with a plan for an MLS that has 20 teams. Yes, there will be an imbalanced 19 teams with Montreal coming online next year, but MLS is hoping to add a 20th team in New York in 2013 or '14, and the league may well stay at 20 for a while. If that's the case, here's how I would set up a 20-team league:
D.C. United,New England,New York Red Bulls,New York Expansion,Philadelphia
Chivas USA,Dallas,Houston,Los Angeles,San Jose
Each team would play a 39-game regular-season league schedule (up from the current 34) comprised of:
• one game against each team from the other conference (10 total)
• two games (one home, one away) against each team from its own conference outside its own geographic "rivalry group" (10 total)
• four games (two home, two away) against each team from its own geographic "rivalry group" (16 total)
• three neutral-site games against teams from outside its own geographic "rivalry group" (3 total)
This setup would increase the number of games and the length of the MLS season to more closely match those of a European league season. It would foster the regional rivalries that Lamar Hunt argued would be so important in MLS (just as they were in the NFL). It would cut down travel distances to a more reasonable level. And it would allow fans to travel to their teams' away games much more frequently.
What are the neutral-site games, you ask? They're a great way to stage league games in February in Sun Belt markets that want to show they deserve future MLS teams (Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix/Tucson, San Diego, Charlotte, Las Vegas). Each MLS team would be drawn randomly into a four-team group with one team from each of the other geographic "rivalry groups." How many fans would travel to see a February league doubleheader on a Saturday night in Vegas? More than a few, I'd think. Plus, the warm-weather locales would keep cold cities like Chicago, New England, Toronto and Montreal from having to host games in February.
Under this plan, the full MLS season would start in February with the playoffs ending at the end of November -- a campaign lasting nine months and two weeks, the same as most European league seasons. Granted, MLS teams that miss the playoffs would only play for eight months, but that's a month more than the current seven.
Here's a comparison that takes into account the league season, Champions Leagues and knockout tournaments that might be useful:
CURRENT MLS (18 TEAMS)
Maximum: 59 competitive games over 8 months
Minimum: 35 competitive games over 7 months
MY PLAN FOR MLS (20 TEAMS)
Maximum: 66 competitive games over 9 months and 2 weeks
Minimum: 40 competitive games over 8 months
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Maximum: 68 competitive games over 9 months and 2 weeks
Minimum: 40 competitive games over 9 months and 1 week
Keep in mind that the maximum number of games in a year will probably never be reached. (Seattle currently has the highest potential number of competitive games for any MLS team in 2011 at 51.)
Teams should also be allowed to increase their roster sizes a bit more to accommodate a few more games, but wear and tear due to long travel will be less. Standings will continue to be kept on a conference basis.
(And then there's the possibility of shifting to the international calendar, in which the MLS Cup final could be played on Memorial Day weekend every year. But that's a topic for another column.)
It's a good idea, MLS owners. Think about it the next time you plan the league's future.