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  • The MLS playoff format is, and has been, broken. Here's a way to overhaul the system while keeping everyone happy and properly rewarding the regular season's best teams.
By Grant Wahl
October 31, 2017

O.K., let’s do this as efficiently as possible. How to fix the MLS playoff format for 2018 and beyond? Go:

We start by acknowledging that playoffs are good. This is a North American sports league, so forget the idea of a single table or a season without playoffs. That’s not happening. The whole point of this exercise is to propose a blueprint that is more exciting for fans and better for sporting priorities that MLS owners might actually choose to follow.

So we’ll offer a superior format that also takes into account what MLS owners value (which is to say, the business side: lots of teams getting in, and home games for as many teams as possible without being ludicrous).

The biggest problems in the current MLS playoff format are:

Problem No. 1: The first legs of the two-legged conference semifinals and finals are too often cagey and boring, with neither team being incentivized to score in what is effectively the first half of a 180-minute game. See this week: Vancouver 0, Seattle 0; Houston 0, Portland 0 (and plenty of other examples in MLS first-leg playoff history).

Problem No. 2: There’s not enough reward for regular-season excellence in the current MLS playoff format. Teams that played better over a 34-game season should have a bigger advantage in the playoffs than they currently do. Teams that weren’t as good over 34 games should have a higher hill to climb in the playoffs.

Problem No. 3: The away-goals tiebreaker in a two-legged playoff is stupid. The hardest and most important thing in the sport is scoring goals. Why would you ever devalue the hardest and most important thing in the sport? If it's 4-4 on aggregate, it should be equal on aggregate, no more questions asked.

Problem No. 4: The MLS playoffs take too long and lose their mojo due to the two-week break of the annual November FIFA window. You’re not going to get FIFA to change its window, and MLS owners don’t want to change the overall league calendar. The solution: We propose changing the postseason format so that playoff games can be staged in a shorter timeframe after the FIFA window is over, ratcheting up the narrative tension and keeping it there.

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What’s the solution? Treat the MLS playoffs like the World Cup. As SI’s Brian Straus first argued, use a group stage in the playoffs. Fans understand group stages because they know the World Cup. In group stages there are 1) incentives for every team to win every game, 2) reasons for other teams’ fans to watch every game, 3) a margin for error if you lose one of the group games (remember Spain falling to Switzerland in World Cup 2010 before winning the tournament?) and 4) increased excitement on the last group matchday, when games have simultaneous kickoffs.

Plus, away-goals tiebreakers never have to come into the equation. The top two teams in each four-team group advance to the conference finals.

Group stages also allow you to reward regular-season excellence: In our proposed MLS playoff format, the top seed in a four-team group gets to host all three of its group games; the No. 2 seed hosts two of its three group games; the No. 3 seed hosts one, and the No. 4 seed goes on the road for all three group games. If the No. 4 seed can find a way to get the necessary results, more power to it! But it will be a heck of a lot harder to do so than in the current scenario.

In the World Cup, there are four off-days between each group matchday. We can do the same in the MLS playoffs and fit every group matchday, the one-game Eastern and Western Conference finals and the one-game MLS Cup final into the calendar so that all of them take place after the November FIFA window and end on the same exact date that the current postseason is set to conclude. To use the 2017 calendar, here’s how it would look:

Saturday, November 18: Two Western Conference Group Games

Sunday, November 19: Two Eastern Conference Group Games

Thursday, November 23: Two Western Conference Group Games (There’s nothing wrong with Thanksgiving games.)

Friday, November 24: Two Eastern Conference Group Games

Tuesday, November 28: Two Western Conference Group Games (Simultaneous)

Wednesday, November 29: Two Eastern Conference Group Games (Simultaneous)

Sunday, December 3: Western Conference Final

Monday, December 4: Eastern Conference Final

Saturday, December 9: MLS Cup Final (hosted by finalist with better regular-season record)

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The one-game MLS play-in matches can take place before the November FIFA window. So if the owners want to continue having 12 teams make the playoffs, the four play-in games could happen before the November FIFA dates. In 2017, those dates could have been Saturday, November 4 and Sunday, November 5 (or whatever dates the owners wanted to maximize TV viewership and attendance).

If the league continues expanding from the current 22 teams to, say, eventually 32 teams, owners can stage however many play-in rounds they need before the November FIFA window. But the eight-team group stages would always continue happening after that FIFA window in a relatively short time frame.

The only potential pitfall of a group stage is a so-called “dead rubber,” in which a team is already eliminated before the final group-stage game and might have less incentive to play at its maximum. But that’s never really a problem at the World Cup, and you can also structure the group games so that the order would maximize the chances for every team to still be alive for the final group game. For example:

Matchday 1: West1 vs West2; West3 vs West4

Matchday 2: West1 vs West3; West2 vs West4

Matchday 3: West1 vs West4; West2 vs West3

(When it comes to the one-game league semifinals, I would actually prefer to see West1 host East2 and East1 host West2. That way you could have new matchups and a greater chance of featuring the league’s two best teams in the final if one conference is significantly better than the other, which is often the case. But my guess is MLS owners would prefer to have a Western Conference final and an Eastern Conference final and give out trophies for those achievements. Plus, I also understand wanting to minimize travel distances, so I’m O.K. with West1-West2 and East1-East2.)

I would challenge any MLS official to come up with a better playoff format than this one. We have fixed the four biggest problems in the current playoff system listed above. We have proposed a system that will be embraced by both fans (who favor excitement, regular-season rewards and sporting concerns) and owners (who favor business, TV and nearly-everyone-gets-a-home-playoff-game concerns).

Tell me why this MLS playoff format won’t work. Seriously.

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