MLS will consider playoff format changes for 2017 season
MLS will consider changing its playoff format in 2017, with regular season record serving as the first tiebreaker in the conference semis and finals among the possible tweaks, the league's vice president of competition told ESPN FC on Thursday.
"I think we believe that the format we have now works, but we're always open to improving as much as we possibly can to make it exciting for fans and fair for our clubs," MLS VP Jeff Agoos said in a phone interview three days before Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders meet in the MLS Cup final.
"Every year we have a discussion over our playoff format."
MLS has changed its postseason set-up frequently during its 20-year history. The playoffs have grown from eight to 12 participants as the league more than doubled in size. Two new teams, Atlanta United and Minnesota United, will grow the circuit to 22 members in 2017.
The league's technical committee will discuss possible changes from the drastic -- such as introducing a group stage similar to what is used in tournaments like the Copa America or World Cup -- to the comparatively benign -- like eliminating away goals as the primary tiebreaker in two-leg series -- it meets next month.
"Whether that's a World Cup-style format, whether that's single elimination like March Madness, whether we keep the format we have now -- those are all things that are on the table and open to discussion," Agoos said. "If they can improve our playoffs, we'll certainly take a very hard look at it."
The away goals tiebreaker was introduced in 2014 to mixed reviews.
"When we didn't have away goals, people were criticizing us for that," Agoos said. "Now that we do have away goals, people are criticizing us for having them."
That rule ensures fewer series are determined by extra-time or penalty kicks. But it can also limit how much home teams are willing to attack, especially if the aggregate score is tied late in the decisive contest.
"We will be discussing the away goals rule in our January meetings, as we've done in the past," Agoos said.
Only two of 12 two-leg series have been decided by away goals over the past three seasons. Nonetheless, Agoos said there is a growing sentiment to consider using regular season record as the first tiebreaker instead.
"I think this will be the first year we really try to put a focus on the higher seed advancing," he said. "We've had some technical directors that have wanted to have that discussion. But we will also look at different alternatives."
Whatever modifications are adopted, if any, they won't be made lightly.
"We're very reluctant to change things unless there's a real strong sentiment one way or the other," he said.
"We changed our playoffs a number of times, and we want to create some level of consistency so our fans understand," Agoos continued.
"But that doesn't mean we won't change it if we think it's the right thing to do."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.