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Does Major League Soccer Have a Playoff Problem?

Having your top seeds wait three weeks to play matches are the least of the issues the MLS Playoffs have this year and it’s something that needs to improve going forward.

2014 MLS Cup - New England Revolution v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

The culmination of the 2021 Major League Soccer season occurs tomorrow, with the Portland Timbers hosting New York City FC with kickoff at 323pm EDT on ABC.

No, the New England Revolution, winners of the Supporter’s Shield, will not be there and nor should they be. They played NYCFC a couple weeks ago after three weeks off, came out flat, didn’t make changes quick enough, and lost on penalties. Such is the way of the playoffs in North American sports - the best regular season team doesn’t always win.

But onto the actual premise of this column and what set me off at the beginning of the week and that is getting to MLS Cup is not silverware worthy.

It’s not, I’m sorry. It’s a nice accomplishment and I’d add it to a banner right next to the New York Yankees Wild Card game wins but it’s not a significant accomplishment to win three games in a row. Now FOUR games in a row into late December is another story. Such is the way of North American sports but perhaps my Revs bias and bitterness is showing.

But is it a laughable notion that the 4th best regular season team in the Eastern Conference merely getting to the MLS Cup Final is “silverware” or for the league twitter account to be accrediting it as such? Colorado’s regular season West title also comes with a trophy I think, and one that I’d hold in much higher esteem since it leads to a CCL spot and occurred over 34 games and not three but I don’t recall that being considered silverware before. I understand the balance of needing to promote the MLS Cup but putting three playoff wins on a pedestal higher than a regular season title seems wrong. Especially an Eastern Conference playoff trophy that a decade ago was being won by Western teams, don’t think we haven’t forgotten the 2010 Rapids and 2009 RSL paths to MLS Cup.

Tomorrow’s MLS Cup appearance being the high water mark of the NYCFC franchise isn’t an incorrect notion but this year’s NYC team remained erratic geniuses rather than a dominant force and it showed in their regular season finish. They are not undeserving champions of the East, they certainly were talented enough to be contenders all year, but I think we need to reflect on just how important this finals appearance is in the grand scheme.

In a vacuum, one title game appearance doesn’t mean much against five previous first round or quarterfinal exits in the playoffs for the Pigeons. Far more important for NYCFC should be their 4-straight top three finishes in the East from 2016-19 including topping the East in 2019 which I think should’ve earned them a trophy despite being runner up in the Shield race so it’s odd that this Conference Finals win is their first “silverware”. But arguably their three wins in the last month against Atlanta on a postage stamp, New England after a three week layoff, and a COVID ravaged Philadelphia team will be remembered, rightly or wrongly, as a better indicator of success. And this concept isn’t just a league or NYC problem, it’s an everywhere problem, including at Revs HQ.

I can not change the North American sports landscape where winning 14 straight divisional titles is considered a disappointment cause the Atlanta Braves only won a single World Series in that stretch. I can’t not fix the city of Philadelphia who thinks Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid were failures for winning a handful of divisional titles and making four straight NFC Championship games, because they went 0-1 in the Super Bowl. These were highly successful teams that had an extended run of regular season excellence which is incredibly hard to do undone by being unable to beat the other best teams in your league in the postseason which is harder to do.

Revolution fans don’t mention their five MLS Eastern Conference trophies because they have long been a symbol of failure. Because losing that final game leaves a bad taste that we still haven’t gotten rid of but give me a team that is consistently good in the regular season and constantly getting deep into the playoffs over a team that just does it once. It’s why Steve Nicol’s teams are remember fondly and the 2014 Revs are remembered for what could have been because only one sustained success.

Those five MLS Cup loses the Revs have as a team in their history doesn’t change the fact that Steve Nicol’s teams were among the best in MLS during the 2000s but there’s always the caveat when talking about that era of Revs history that they didn’t win anything. Except a US Open Cup and being the last MLS team to win a continental tournament cause the SuperLiga was awesome and no the Campeones Cup does not count it’s a one-off.

Yes I am a Eagles/Braves/Revs/Whalers fan and I regret nothing. But I also don’t view playoff titles as the only benchmark for success.

North American sports are weird, I understand this - leagues play a 6 month regular seasons to eliminate half of the teams and then have a playoff format for another month or two to determine the actual best team. We hang banners for division and conference wins but most of the silverware is given out in the postseason. From a global soccer standpoint this clashes with the norm where the top teams are rewarded with continental games and monies but I understand the balance MLS has to strike between big brother Europe and it’s North American roots and for the most part it does this well. The MLS Cup Playoffs are always highly entertaining and are a great marquee event for the league but overall represent a fraction of the league’s allocated CCL spots with two going to the Conference regular season champions and only one for MLS Cup and a fourth usually for the US Open Cup winner.

So, does Major League Soccer promoting a Conference Final win as any kind of silverware mean it has a playoff problem? No, not entirely. I think it has an identity crisis it needs to sort out about the importance of MLS Cup and how it decides its champion. Because in their quest to get as many eyeballs on their marquee playoff games the league has perhaps done more harm than good...

The Revs have been on both sides of this issue, dispatching the Shield winning Philadelphia Union in their first playoff game in the 2020 playoffs after Gustavo Bou’s stoppage time rocket winner against Montreal. That momentum is clearly important, and the league is crippling its best teams with these long layoffs.

I am a big fan of chaos, openly root for it every March in particular my individual college basketball bracket be damned, but something tells me that the top teams should not be happy about MLS’s current playoff setup. Your reward for being the top seed should be facing a team on a quick turnaround from a midweek game, not a several week layoff that takes your team so far away from match sharpness that they put out their worst performance. The chaos and upsets are going to happen, that is the nature of playoff sports, but the league shouldn’t be indirectly helping the chaos.

Part of the schedule issue is self inflicted by the Revs in particular for having to schedule around a Patriots game and avoid throwball lines on the turf among local venue availability issues but this year at most that accounts for half a week of their nearly month long break they earned as being the Shield winners. But I think I could deal with the extra lines if there was some semblance of normalcy or consistency with the playoff schedule instead of the horrid mess where we try to get as many games seen on national television. If the goal is to determine the best team, the league needs a level playing field for it’s top teams. Not a cobbled together mess of national TV slots to determine it’s champion.

The fixed bracket of this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs is the actual worst setup I think possible. There’s no reseeding, different rest times all over the place - Portland played on 3 days rest while NYC played on 8, and for some strange reason a Thanksgiving Day game in between all the throwball that got high enough ratings that it will likely be tried again. I understand the last couple of years in particular had the pandemic to work around but I think a lot of the scheduling is self inflicted by the league who thinks their playoffs can compete on NFL Sundays when they should be as far away from that day of the week as possible when fall rolls around.

The MLS Cup Playoffs need a better overall structure if the league is going to stick with the single elimination format. Personally, I’m a less is more when it comes to the playoffs so an eighth team wouldn’t be my preference and I’d rather see two-legged Conference and MLS Finals but if the league is having scheduling issues now I can’t imagine two-legged affairs making a comeback anytime soon. At least the neutral site final is gone and hopefully never to return.

My ideal format would be top 5 in each conference, 4 vs 5 as a play-in game to the top seed and then 2 vs 3 in single leg affairs, then Conf Semi winners play a two-legged Aggregate series, no away goals, and the winners play a two-legged series for MLS Cup. Spread it out however you like but I’d rather see the best teams playing each other more often as a better example of the quality of your league. With apologies to the 2020 Revs and 2021 RSL playoff runs and my love of bracket chaos, midtable to bottom half teams shouldn’t be making the playoffs if we’re here to determine the best team in the league rather than the best team in the final month.

Obviously the single elimination bracket and format isn’t going anywhere but there needs to be some standards and the first is solidifying the schedule. I’d rather see MLS Decision Day impacted by the international break than the playoffs. Play the last game of the year on the first weekend after the international games and then go right into the start of the playoffs midweek which should have all of your playoff teams at a nice balance between healthy and match sharp.

If you want Friday/Saturday matchups for your quarterfinals and semifinals then your first round games should be on the preceding Tuesday/Wednesday so the top seed actually gets to benefit from that “bye” week. Okay, it’s regular rest but clearly the actual bye weeks aren’t working so let’s keep it simple.

Whatever conference has the first day’s timeslots keeps playing on the first day - none of this mix and match stuff. The goal should be to keep the rest as comparable as possible for all teams from week to week instead of whatever that mess was that had the Revs off for 23 days playing NYC on 9 days rest while Portland played at Colorado on 3 days rest with the Rapids coming off an 18-day rest spell. The second goal should be to benefit the higher seeds as often as possible and that means reseeding every round otherwise what was the point of the regular season.

I honestly don’t know what almost 2 million viewers on Thanksgiving means to the league or potential in advertising revenue but I admit my bias as a former Radio/TV major in that I don’t get out of bed for ratings numbers unless it’s over 10 million cause that’s actually moving the needle. But I do know network TV isn’t the cure all or ratings boon everyone thinks it is.

This isn’t acceptable for your product, specifically a marquee Conference playoff final, and while this isn’t just an MLS issue, their broadcast partner is letting them down here. I wasn’t a fan of the Thanksgiving Day game on FOX but it got “historic” ratings for an MLS game but it still felt gimmicky to spread out that quarter final round over the span of a week to simultaneously go up against and avoid NFL slots.

I don’t know the details or logistics of getting the MLS playoffs on television but it seems far more complicated than it should be. Your broadcast partners in ESPN and FOX should want these games on their best platforms but obviously ratings wise you’re not beating out NFL games or a lot of college games or American Idol or Grey’s Anatomy or whatever’s on prime time network TV during the week nowadays. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the league’s rights package to include a handful of late November/early December network time slots for your playoff games.

So, does MLS have a playoffs problem? Not with the actual games no, they’re fine. The format is not perfect but the playoffs are there to generate drama and excitement and not be a true reflection of the “best” team and that’s not going to change. But the league does have a problem with how it treats its playoff and separately how its broadcast partners treat the playoffs. You can’t seek out the best broadcast times while tearing down the parody of competition your league works so hard at. That is unless you’re going to reward teams with allocation money for that extra playoff revenue rather than give teams that miss the playoffs more allocation to maintain balance.

The Portland Timbers and NYCFC will host a magnificent final at one the best grounds in MLS at Providence Park and it will be I’m sure a display deserving of the league and it’s championship event. Both teams should be proud to play on the league’s final day and are both deserving of that honor.

But we also need to be honest about the fact that one team collected a fancy doorstop last week and I’m hoping it’s NYC who are still four fancy Conference Finals doorstops behind New England.

A doorstop named Despair.