The new MLS playoff system is absolutely stupid

The new MLS playoff system is absolutely stupid

The MLS playoffs started this weekend. You might not have noticed thanks to the World Series also starting, as well as the NFL and college football, and even the NHL and NBA in full swing now. The league has never really been able to thread this needle, and to be fair, it’s a tricky one to do.

You also might not have known that this year, the first round of the MLS playoffs are a best-of-3 format. And you may ask yourself, “Does any other league in the world use a best-of-3 format in soccer?” And the answer would be a resounding, no, because it’s dumb and stupid and a traveshamockery.

The league opted for this, or more to the point, were ordered to do this by Apple to give it more playoff inventory, which Apple obviously felt would sell more subscriptions come the fall. Because Apple thinks this is what soccer fans respond to, and because they can keep their subscription numbers secret, we’ll never know if they were right (they’re not). They also expanded the field to 18 teams, which means 62 percent of the league gets to call itself a playoff team.

Here’s the kind of sitting-in-the-buffet-tray-for-hours fare this offered up in the postseason, when a league would supposedly want to put its best product on show. Sporting Kansas City, which didn’t win any of its first 10 games (though hey, fair play, they won Game 1 of their playoffs series with St. Louis last night). FC Dallas, which won four of its last 17 games. The Red Bulls, which won one of its first 11 games. Nashville, which one two games between the middle of June and October. They also scored 39 goals in 34 games. Catch the fever.

But that’s not unique. MLS isn’t the only league that lets flotsam into their playoffs to round out the field. Though none of the five games played yet have done so, in this best-of-3 format, any game that is tied after 90 minutes goes to penalties. This leaves open the possibility that playoff results will be based on two, or even three, penalty shootouts. Imagine if NHL playoff games were decided by shootouts and how that would look.

Soccer games obviously can’t go forever, but when MLS used to use this three-game format back in the day, it was whoever was first to five points. So two draws and a win would get you through. Only if each team won a game and then drew the other would a third game go to extra time or penalties, if needed. At least the two teams actually played the game to decide who would win in the playoffs.
The coup de stupid is that after this round, every round thereafter goes back to single-elimination games. So the league is trying to sit on two chairs at once, weighting one portion of their playoffs to try to benefit higher-ranked teams while making later rounds as random as can be. It wants the regular season to matter somewhat, but it also wants some level of chaos.

What it is, of course, is a naked attempt to simply have more playoff games for Apple, even though you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who likes this in any fashion. And it happens when literally every other major sport is taking place.

MLS won’t be able to solve that problem until they adopt the European calendar with a spicing of a South American or Mexican “apertura and clausura” split, culminating in the spring instead of fall. Which it hasn’t shown any appetite to do, as it also tries to straddle two chairs in who it claims its chasing for viewers, wanting to appeal to longtime soccer fans as well as North American fans who only know a playoff system. Again, this might not be a needle that can be thread, but that won’t stop them from trying.

Oh, and the second round of the playoffs won’t begin until after the next international break, meaning the beginning of the first round to the beginning of the second round will literally take a month. That’s how you build momentum, boyo!

MLS could just adopt something of a split-league format that some others use, where the top six in each conference are separated out and then play each other once from there, and just call it “playoffs.” At least it would make sense. But that’s not really something the league has ever been confused with.

The difference between the NBA and NHL in two tweets

Little wonder why the NBA keeps gaining in popularity:

And why the NHL probably won’t ever:

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.