MLS playoffs have some flaws in format, but they also entertain
This Sunday, MLS commissioner Don Garber will hand MLS Cup to either the Portland Timbers or the Columbus Crew, and at that moment, perhaps the most memorable postseason in MLS history will come to a close.
Granted, there have been other years that have witnessed more goals per game in the playoffs. Heading into Sunday's final, the current campaign has seen 2.69 goals per playoff game. The 2013 and 2014 postseasons saw 2.8 goals scored per game. The 2003 playoffs -- which just so happens to be the first year the league started using two-game series in some rounds as opposed to three -- remain the high-water mark, with 3.0 goals per game. What has made this postseason so memorable, however, has been when the goals have been scored, as opposed to how many.
Over the 16 playoff games contested so far, a whopping 15 goals have been scored in the 80th minute or later. The next-highest average was in 2004 and 2006, when just seven "late" goals were scored in 11 playoff games. And the late tallies in the current playoff run weren't insurance goals, either: Thirteen of the 15 either broke ties or created them. Add in the epic 11-round penalty shootout involving the Timbers and Sporting Kansas City during the knockout round and you have a drama-meter that has been redlining for almost the entirety of the postseason.
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Yet for all the playoff excitement, there is still a debate over how best to determine a league champion. On the one hand, there are soccer purists who believe that the best approach is a single table with a balanced schedule in which each team plays the other home and away, as is done in the vast majority of leagues around the world. On the other, there is the belief that playoffs work best, with MLS and Liga MX leading the charge on that front.
A strong argument can made that sustained excellence over the course of the season ought to be recognized as the league champion. It lessens the impact of luck or a single refereeing decision having an undue influence on the competition. In MLS, the Supporters Shield (awarded in honor of the team with the highest number of regular-season points) has seen an increase in attention, yet remains a distant second in terms of prestige. Most of this is down to its flaws, among them the imbalanced league schedule and the way MLS plays through international fixture dates, which robs teams of their best players for several weeks each season.
There is a clear path to fixing those faults, of course. A 38-game schedule doesn't seem that much more onerous than the current 34-game format, but the league's plans to expand to 24 teams (and beyond) make a home-and-away format impractical going forward. The desire of MLS to emphasize regional rivalries also works against such a format.
The cultural heft in North America of using playoffs to determine a champion is considerable. While professional baseball was the pioneer in this area going back to the late 1800s, there is even some history in soccer with the use of playoffs. During the 1927-28 campaign, the American Soccer League went to a "split season" format, with the fall and spring champions squaring off to determine an overall champion. There was an intermittent use of playoffs ever since, though it became a staple in the days of the original North American Soccer League.
There are other reasons for opting for the playoff model besides logistics and history. A single table without a system of promotion/relegation would result in too many meaningless games and promotion/relegation is a concept that MLS is dead set against; the USSF is also understandably reluctant to impose.
This is not to say that the current format is a complete inoculation against meaningless games. The very forgiving nature of the playoff system, one that sees 12 out of the league's 20 teams qualify, creates a lack of urgency in the first half of the season. It also does little to punish mediocrity at the end. But it does sustain fan interest for most of the campaign and even accelerates it in some regions as the playoffs commence.
Which leads to the biggest reasons of all to have playoffs, namely money and a means to grow the sport.
"The playoffs help a lot more in terms of monetization in U.S. sports, where it's a single point of excitement," said Michael Colangelo, the assistant director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "You can draw more fans. It's better for the business end as well. The games always matter towards the end of the season."
San Jose Earthquakes president David Kaval added, "I think the reality is if you look at North American sports, the higher ratings and the time of year where you attract more casual fans and build interest in your sport is typically around the playoffs. That is something that is a tried and true system in sports business and sports media. That is certainly one consideration in terms of why a playoff system is important for the league."
While television ratings remain a challenge for the league, especially given the fact that Sunday playoff games require MLS to go up against the behemoth that is the NFL, other ways to engage both casual and hard-core fans have emerged.
"In many ways, the playoffs are like an on-ramp to getting interest in the league and some of the teams," said Kaval. "And I think it's more than just ratings. How many tweets are there? How many Facebook posts? Especially with our younger millennial fans, I don't think they're sitting at home with a Nielsen box. I think for us, we see the engagement going way up, and so we consider that a big success."
Colangelo is of the opinion that ratings are still critical, but not as much as in the past.
"Television ratings used to be the end-all, be-all," he said. "That's where any sort of sponsorship deal or advertising deal or on-field signage during the TV broadcast was generating revenue. Now, engaging digitally is a huge issue. Millennials just consume content in a different manner. The ratings are important. They still are the No. 1 way to reach viewers, but the shift is happening and we're kind of at a point where leagues and sponsors and anyone involved in the business end can spread out their money and hedge a little bit."
For a league still trying to acquire every last bit of mindshare that it can, it's difficult to see the same amount of end-of-season attention -- and drama -- being attained with a single table.
Are there ways the current system could be tweaked? Without question, especially as it relates to rewarding regular season success. Since the start of the aforementioned 2003 season, only two teams have achieved an MLS Cup and Supporters Shield double. That span has also seen just seven regular season conference champions reach the MLS Cup final.
Using regular season placing as a tiebreaker if two teams are tied after two legs and on away goals, as Liga MX currently does, would certainly be a step in the right direction. Using the same tiebreaker without away goals would tilt the scales towards the higher-seeded team even more. Regardless, more needs to be done to increase the value of excelling during the regular season.
All told, the use of playoffs by MLS has its flaws. But it's here to stay, and that's not a bad thing.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.