Soccer

MLS Kickoff: Playoff Reform Could Make Regular Season Way More Exciting

The 2013 MLS regular season just kicked off, making this an opportune time to point out how said regular season gets wholly undermined by the postseason. The structure is flawed and renders most of the inventory irrelevant. More than star power or soccer quality, the flat format may be foiling the league’s quest for mainstream (i.e. television) popularity.

Regular season results should matter. That’s the reason to watch. Eliminating a large number of teams before the postseason is one way to make them matter. Another is providing tangible incentives for finishing higher. Most American leagues do one or the other with varying degrees of success. MLS does neither.

The 34-match MLS season eliminates just 9 of the 19 teams. The eight teams that come through after the knockout round are on almost equal footing. With home and home games, there is no home-field advantage. The league’s parity, enforced by the salary cap and overall talent level, leaves little difference between opponents.

Winning the Supporter’s Shield, for the league’s best record, offers zero advantage. San Jose’s “prize” was a first-round date with the star-studded LA Galaxy, which they lost. Underwhelming teams such as Vancouver, which won 11/34 matches and earned just 43 points, can worm their way into the mix. A disappointing regular season team, such as the Galaxy, can muddle through, get hot at the right time and win the championship. Beyond determining which teams finish in the top and bottom half, the regular season matters little.

The postseason subverting the regular season might be justified in some instances. NBA and NHL postseasons offer a second, more compelling season where teams have their true mettle tested. A postseason could also just be lucrative and immensely popular, such as the NCAA Tournament. Neither is the case with MLS.

Individual results can be fluky in soccer. The playoff, subject to random twists of fate, can be far easier to win than the regular season. The MLS Cup playoffs are very unpopular with television audiences. Even the final drew just an 0.7 rating last year.

This should be fixed, but how? Importing a soccer solution won’t work. The European model, with one table and a champion based on regular season record, provides maximum competitive worth for the regular season. The trouble is the MLS business model precludes relegation. The CONCACAF Champions League is not quite the windfall the UEFA one is. There’s no way to create ancillary interest if the title race is sewn up in August.

A better method might be reducing the size of the playoffs. MLS could keep the Eastern and Western Conferences and have the top team from each play in a semifinal. This would enhance the regular season. Races for the number two spot, given the league’s parity, would be incredibly tight.

Last year, for instance, D.C. United would have edged the Red Bulls and Chicago Fire by a point for second place in the East. The Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew would have been around almost to the checkered flag as well. In the West, Real Salt Lake, Seattle and LA would all have been within three points of that second spot. When the 20th team arrives, MLS could even do the EPL thing where all ten matches are played at once the final day.

Perhaps, league owners could be persuaded to sacrifice a home date and to make the semifinals a one-off at the home stadium at the top team, providing a real advantage to finishing on top.

Besides enhancing the regular season, the more exclusive playoff would be a better product. It would reflect what transpired during the season. It would be a superior sell for television. Three games, all with elimination, can work. Fifteen games, with a wonky format and mediocre teams spread out over a month during football season, is not working.

MLS offers a tremendous live experience (factoring cost maybe the best in American sports), but the league has scuffled appealing to mainstream American sports fans. To do so, the league must improve its television presence. A largely irrelevant regular season, undermined by a bloated, random postseason, is not the way forward.

[Photo via USA Today Sports]

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