MLS Overhauls Playoffs, Opting For New Single-Elimination Format
MLS has altered its playoff format by "eliminating two-legged series from the postseason and further incentivizing the higher seeds in each conference in an effort to add more meaning to the regular season," according to Avi Creditor of SI.com. These changes will mean that "instead of having MLS Cup staged in December, the season will end considerably earlier, with mid-November the new timing for the final, ahead of the FIFA international window that has disrupted the momentum of the playoffs in years past." Under the new plan, seven teams -- up from six -- in each of the two conferences (which will each have 12 teams in '19) will "make the playoffs, with the respective No. 1 seeds earning first-round byes." The remaining teams in each conference will "play one-game elimination matches, with the higher seed hosting." In order to fit the playoffs into the "new, shorter, time window," MLS will "add more midweek matches throughout the regular season, which remains at 34 games." The league "made a point to show that the new timing will be compatible" with the November/December schedule for the '22 World Cup in Qatar (SI.com, 12/17). SOCCER AMERICA's Paul Kennedy wrote these are the "most sweeping changes" to the playoffs since after the '02 season when MLS "abandoned a best-of-three series." MLS will "likely start the regular season earlier," beginning in '20. The league will "have to consider some sort of postseason competition for the fall of a fall competition for young players, like MLB teams do" with the Arizona Fall League (SOCCERAMERICA.com, 12/17).
IT'S ABOUT TIME: ESPN.com's Jeff Carlisle wrote the changes "address several criticisms of the format that has been used for the last several seasons." The most recent format was "comprised of an initial, single-elimination knockout round followed by conference semifinals and finals that were contested over two legs." The MLS Cup was then "held at the home field of whichever team had the better regular season record." However, there had "been complaints that the format didn't do enough to reward teams for regular season excellence" (ESPN.com, 12/17). In Philadelphia, Jonathan Tannenwald notes this style of postseason has been "championed for years by those who back the drama that one-game rounds can bring." Critics of the one-game format "feared low-scoring, play-to-lose soccer." Lower-seeded owners also "feared losing the money and exposure they got from home games in the old format." There have also "been gripes for some time that MLS changes its playoff format too often." This will be the "ninth variation in the league's 23-year history." However, in "terms of talent and finances, MLS is at a point where this setup should be a success" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 12/18).
KEEP THE FANS IN IT: In Dallas, Dan Crooke noted the international break "falling in the middle of the playoffs often saw the momentum lost between fears of injury or fatigue," and other players going two weeks without a game." Additionally, the "length of the playoffs often saw fan interest wane, or at least dip prior to the conference finals round" (DALLASNEWS.com, 12/17).