Since its inception, Major League Soccer has changed playoff formats more frequently than a model on a photo shoot changes outfits. The current format, implemented for the 2012 season, has come under heavy criticism during the past two playoff seasons. Currently, the top five teams from both the Eastern and the Western Conference advance to the playoffs. The 4th and 5th seeded teams in each conference meet in a single elimination wildcard round with the winner advance to the Conference Semifinals to face the top seed while the 2nd and 3rd seeded teams face off. The Conference Semifinals and Finals are decided in a home-and-away series where the teams with the highest aggregate goal total advance. In the event of a tie following the conclusion of the second match in the series, 30 minutes of extra time takes place followed by penalties, if necessary. In the home-and-away series, the lower seeded team hosts the first match with the higher seeded team hosting the second match. On January 16th, Grant Wahl tweeted that this format may be revised to allow the higher seeded team to choose the order of the game locations.
In each of the last two seasons, major upsets have occurred including early elimination of the Supporters’ Shield winner in the Conference Semifinals. The Houston Dynamo have been responsible for most of these upsets, including a run to the MLS Cup Final in 2012 despite being the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference, and the elimination of the Supporters’ Shield winning New York Red Bulls as the 4th seed in the Conference in 2013. In 2012, the 4th seeded Los Angeles Galaxy knocked out the Supporter’s Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes in the Conference Semifinals and advanced all the way to the MLS Cup Final, resulting in an all wildcard match-up with Houston.
Claims in 2012 that the home-and-away format does not provide sufficient advantage to the higher seeded team were renewed in 2013 following the elimination of New York by the Dynamo. Prior to the 2002 season, the playoffs were determined on the basis of best of three playoff series. Major League Soccer rightly left this system behind after the 2001 season as it shifted more towards its soccer roots and away from resembling other American sport leagues. As a result, the favored system of most detractors of the current playoff format is to hold one match series all the way to the Cup Final. They claim that this would prove a clear and appropriate advantage to the home team. Prior to the 2012 season, the Conference Finals were determined in exactly this way while Conference Semifinals were a home-and-away series.
A switch to a one-game playoff series would have the negative impact of reduced TV exposure and fewer ticket sales. Therefore, we sought to determine whether a one-game series has truly benefited the home side to a greater extent than a home-and-away series. We reviewed playoff results since the Houston Dynamo began playing in 2006, and found some surprising results. First, a refresher on the playoff format and outcomes in each season since 2006:
2006: The top 4 teams from each conference advanced to the playoffs. The Conference Semifinals were played as a home-and-away series, the Conference Final a one-game series with the MLS Cup Final played at a neutral venue. In the Conference Semifinals, three of the four higher seeds advanced with only FC Dallas (top seed in the West) losing to Colorado Rapids on penalties. In the Conference Final, the lower seeded New England Revolution defeated DC United while the higher seeded Houston Dynamo knocked off Colorado. The Dynamo defeated New England to win the MLS Cup in their inaugural season in Houston.
2007: A new playoff format was implemented which saw the top two teams from both conferences clinching a playoff spot and the next four highest point finishers regardless of conference. The Conference Semifinals remained a home-and-away series which saw the higher seed win 2 of 4 series (the top seeded team in each conference was eliminated). New England and Houston both advanced to the Conference Final as higher seeds. Houston beat New England for the second season in a row at a neutral venue.
2008: Another change in playoff formats; the top three teams from each conference advanced along with the next two highest point totals regardless of conference. The Conference Semifinal was again a home-and-away series with the higher seed winning two of four. Houston, the top seed in the West, was eliminated by New York despite taking a 1-1 tie back to Robertson for the second match in the series. The single match Conference Finals were split with the higher seed winning one of two as Columbus advanced to beat New York in the Cup Final.
2009: Yet another change in playoff format, reverting back to the format in place during the 2007 season. The higher seed took 3 of 4 home-and-away series. The high and low seeds split the two knockout matches in the Conference Finals (West #1 seed LA Galaxy knocked out West #2 seed Houston Dynamo) before Real Salt Lake defeated LA on penalties in the Cup Final.
2010: A year with no change in playoff format. The high and low seeds split the home-and-away series with two apiece. This included East #1 seed New York Red Bulls beating East #4 San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw only to collapse at home. The knockout matches were also split evenly, one apiece, with West #3 FC Dallas upsetting West #1 LA Galaxy before losing in the Cup Final to Colorado Rapids.
2011: The playoff format changed to the top five from each conference advancing. However, the 4th and 5th seed in each conference were grouped together, regardless of conference, in a wildcard game with the highest point total playing the lowest point total and #2 versus #3 in single elimination matches. These were split evenly between higher and lower seeds. The Conference Semifinal was again home-and-away which saw three of four higher seeds advancing. In the Conference Final, Houston upset Sporting Kansas City in a knockout match before losing to LA Galaxy, who also won the Supporters’ Shield.
2012: Changed to the current playoff format. In the wildcard round, Houston won at Chicago while the Galaxy beat Vancouver in Los Angeles. Houston proceeded to upset Sporting Kansas City, the top seed in the East followed by DC United, the 2nd seed in the East both in home-and-away matchups. The Galaxy also upset two higher seeds en route to beating Houston in the MLS Cup Final.
2013: A slight tweak to the format which resulted in the MLS Cup Finalist with the higher regular season point total hosting the Cup Final. The Dynamo knocked out Supporters’ Shield winning New York, despite New York leaving Houston with an advantage having held the Dynamo to a 2-2 tie (although they could easily have won that match). They dropped the series by losing at home, not by losing on the road. However, the higher seeded team won the other 3 Conference Semifinals and 1 of 2 Conference Finals.
In total, since 2006 there have been 36 home-and-away playoff series in Major League Soccer. The higher seed has won 20 of them, or 55.6% of the time. Excluding the MLS Cup Final, there have been 18 single match series with the higher seed winning 11 times. This translates to a 61.1% winning percentage.
However, a truer comparison perhaps treats the 2012 playoffs as an outlier. As a result of the postseason runs by Houston and Los Angeles, this was the worst season for higher seeds in home-and-away series, losing 5 of 6. However, this needs to be taken into perspective: the Galaxy were defending Cup and Supporters’ Shield winners but had struggled for much of the season due primarily to injury to Omar Gonzalez. Once Gonzalez returned, the Galaxy were vastly improved and it would be a stretch to consider their participation in the Final as an upset. Similarly, the Dynamo were defending Eastern Conference champions but were lethargic for much of the 2012 season prior to a late run to reach the playoffs. Seeing them continue that run during the playoffs hardly constituted a shock either. If we remove the 2012 season, the winning percentage for home sides in home-and-away series jumps up to 63.3%, higher than the winning percentage for home sides in a one-game series.
From our perspective, there is no statistical evidence that the higher seed enjoys a greater advantage in a one game playoff series than they do in a home-and-away series; certainly not enough to warrant the negative revenue impact that would come from a reduction in the number of playoff games.
That said, we recognize that some might claim that 18 one-game series is not statistically significant for making a determination. Therefore, to test this result, we reviewed the outcome in the only other professional league in America that utilizes a single game knockout playoff format, the NFL. Since 2006 there have been 78 single game elimination playoff series in the NFL. The higher seed has won 46 of those, or 59% of the time.
Bottom line, the team that is better prepared for the playoffs will win regardless of where the match is played (a little luck helps as well). This is especially true in a league that features as much parity as Major League Soccer does. We extol the virtues of parity during the regular season yet act surprised when that same parity results in lower seeds knocking off higher seeds in the playoffs when the results are exactly what such parity should be expected to produce.
The concept of allowing the higher seeded team choose the order of game locations is intriguing. However, it is difficult to envision a team wanting to give their opponent a chance to play the second match of the series in front of their home crowd in all but the most unusual of circumstances.
If pundits really want to see an advantage given to the higher seed then they should look at the playoff format that K-League abandoned following the 2011 season. Under that format, the top 6 teams reached the playoffs. In the 1st round, the 4th seed played the 5th seed while the 3rd seed hosted the 6th seed. The winners of those matches played each other in the second round. The winner of the 2nd round played the 2nd seed in the Semi-finals before finally meeting the top seed in the Championship game. In other words, the equivalent of the Supporters’ Shield winner in K-League received a bye all the way to the Final.
Would this format make detractors of the current format happy? Probably not and it is well worth pointing out that K-League abandoned this format for good reason. What do you think about the direction the MLS playoff format should take? Does the current format work? If you had the choice of playing the first match on the road or at home, which would you choose?