Heading into MLS 3.0 next season, Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus released details on Saturday of a newly expanded playoff structure that is likely to be in place for 2015.
The new format would add two additional knockout games to include the sixth place team in each conference. This would raise the number of competing playoff teams to 12 from the current 10 that MLS have been utilizing for four consecutive seasons. With the addition of two new expansion teams in Orlando City and New York City, the playoff qualification rate will rise to 60%. As the league continues to undergo further expansion, this rate will reduce but is likely to ultimately hover around 50%.
In next year's playoffs, the third-place teams from each conference will lose their ability to bypass the play-in round and instead be matched up against the sixth-place teams in a one-off knockout match. The fourth- and fifth-place team will continue to play a knockout match just as recent years. Following this initial Wild Card round, teams within each conference will be reseeded to ensure that first-place will face the lowest-ranked team. Outside of the initial play-in round, the remaining playoff structure looks to be unchanged.
Alterations of the MLS Playoffs are no unfamiliar sight for fans. In 2012, the two-leg "home-and-home" format was introduced to the Conference Finals, removing the home-field advantage earned by the higher-seeded team in place of more dramatic games. The addition of the Away-Goal Rule this year has helped the Supporter's Shield winners Seattle Sounders nearly reach the Cup Final with only a single victory from four matches (which, ironically, came on Sunday as they were eliminated by way of the very same rule).
Debate has swelled over which effort remains most indicative of the best team in MLS -- is it wading through a 34-match slog of injuries, call-ups, and victories or perhaps the month-long whirlwind of skill and lucky bounces to be declared "champions"? The league appears to give more prestige to the team emerging from the playoffs rather than the regular season.
With the addition of more teams deeper down the table, lifelines are tossed to clubs like Philadelphia, Toronto, or Houston to overtake truly impressive teams like Seattle, Los Angeles, New England, or DC United. While the Dynamo have certainly made this strategy their bread-and-butter in recent years, it begs discussion on whether it merits the title of MLS' Best.
It wouldn't be accurate to say that MLS' alterations to the playoff format have made things less engaging. This year's rendition has been one of the most exciting in recent memory. The new Away-Goal rule is part of that excitement, though, when its effect is felt, it's difficult to not feel hard-done in some way ("Did Dallas really deserve to go home?", "Seattle - Los Angeles certainly seemed deserving of another half hour"). That said, does all the spectacle of Playoff Soccer lend legitimacy to crowning the last team standing? It would seem more pure to attribute actual weight to the performances of the regular season but it's never been clear how to do so in the current format.
Last year, however, Forbes' Zach Slaton brought a 2010 proposal from Brian Straus back into the spotlight. Frustrated with MLS' cheapening of the regular season but still an ardent supporter of playoffs (as opposed to the top-of-the-table champion), Straus figured out a way to reward high seeds in the playoffs via home field advantage.
In Straus' format, the fourth- and fifth-place teams from each conference would undergo the play-in round just as today. However, in the next round, each conference would turn into a 4-team Group Stage. Each team would play the others once and a team's seeding would determine where. For example, the top-seeded team would host all of their three matches. Second-seed would host two matches and play top-seed away. Third-seed would host a single match and face the two other higher seeds on the road. The fourth-seed would play all matches away. This gives weight to each team's regular season performances while still preserving the, albeit difficult, route a low-seed must traverse in order to stake a claim to the Cup.
Following the group stage, the top two teams would advance to a two-legged Conference Final with a very special caveat. The top-seed, playing the first leg on the road, could finish the series with a win in the first match. This gives incentive to the top-seed to earn a little extra rest by closing the series early and could also prevent an overly cautious strategy to capitalize at home in the second leg.
Using statistics from Matthias Kullowatz, an author for American Soccer Analysis, Straus' proposal does seem to improve the Cup chances of a team that plays well during the regular season. Low-seeds are at a severe disadvantage and, Straus argues, they should be. Their default position means that, in all likelihood, about five or six teams from the league had a better regular season. If a team like Houston were able to sneak into the playoffs, they should have to sell their soul in order to reach a Cup unscathed.
Straus' proposal may not necessarily solve all issues (MLS has a notoriously poor November schedule thanks to simultaneous FIFA Internationals) but it is an important step in lending legitimacy to what teams endure for seven months. The 2015 changes haven't been made official yet (though they could during Don Garber's State of the League later today) but should they pan out as Straus has reported, many fans, players, and coaches can't help but feel that the league has, again, missed the point.