Discover more from MLS Musings
The MLS playoffs: An eternal conundrum
MLS is looking at a change to the playoffs, but do they need it?
Last night, Sam Stejskal and Pablo Maurer reported that MLS is, once again, looking to tweak the playoffs, going for a group stage format. Given MLS’s constant changing of the format, this raises the question: is it necessary?
Today, I’ll give my two cents on the topic. I’d actually been sitting on this piece for a while, but now feels like a good time to drop it.
Are the playoffs too big?
As an astronaut with a gun once said, “always have been.” If you think the size of the playoffs is bad in 2022, how would you have felt during much of MLS’s first 15 years? Up until the late 2000s, you basically had to try to miss with the playoffs.
Playoffs aren’t about reaching a point target, but about jumping teams ahead of you. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was only one or two teams you had to jump to get in.
For a particularly egregious example, let’s take a look at Decision Day in 2004. New England played Chicago, with the winner reaching that year’s postseason. The loser….won the Wooden Spoon. The Revs won, tying the Fire with 33 points from 30 games (a point-per-game rate that would have had them thirteenth in the 2022 East, slotted between Chicago and Toronto) and pipping them on tiebreaker. This team, that only avoided the Spoon on a tiebreaker, then upset Shield-winning Columbus in the first round over two legs, and only fell to DC in the Eastern finals on penalties.
There’s also a case one year later, where two weak expansion teams (like, all time BAD teams) basically made that year’s Western qualification a foregone conclusion. And when the playoffs start, all scoreboards read zero. The Galaxy, who basically got to coast all season because of this and finished on just 45 points in 32 games, went on to win MLS Cup, beating the one seeds in both conferences along the way.
During the late 2000s and early 2010s, thanks to league expansion, the percentage of teams making the playoffs began to decrease. You had the same amount of teams in the playoffs, but the amount of teams you had to beat out just to scrape in grew. Making the postseason wasn’t “congrats, you didn’t completely suck,” it was “you were better than a decent chunk of teams, nice going.” In normal years (so we’re throwing out 2020, because COVID screwed everything up), only twice (2015-2016) since 2008 has the percentage of playoff teams bumped 60% or higher (where it was from 1996 to 2007), and 2022 marks just the second time that the percentage of playoff teams has dipped to 50% (the other coming in 2010).
The playoffs are only bigger today in terms of volume of teams. They’ve never been harder to qualify for; you don’t just leapfrog one team and call it a day, you have to jump seven teams to make it.
Now, I do agree that they still might be a bit too big today; I think making the playoffs should be an achievement. But it’s better than where we were, and I don’t think MLS wants to shrink because of one Internet nerd.
Which format to go with?
This one is a bit trickier. MLS has tinkered with the format numerous times.
I don’t really blame them, to be honest. Part of MLS’s pull is its parity and surprise results. But you also want a deserving winner, especially in this sport, and striking a balance is tough. And if you’re MLS, you also have to work around the FIFA schedule, as well as weather, and in some cases stadium dates.
Last season was especially weird, with West 7 seed RSL making it all the way to the West finals and both #1 seeds falling in the conference quarterfinal.
But here’s the thing…the better teams were still, generally, rewarded.
In 13 matches, the home seeds still won over half the games - 7 wins from 13. Of those six losses, three were in penalties (NYC over the Revs and Timbers, and RSL over Seattle), and one was with the losing team basically playing with half a squad (Philadelphia’s COVID-ravaged ECF against NYC). So while the “better” seed win rate was lower than usual, it looks less bad in context.
It’s just that the falls were the big, high-seed teams. Seattle - gone. Colorado - gone. New England - gone.
Fast forward to this season thus far and it’s been even more extreme in rewarding regular season success. The only road teams thus far in the playoffs to win were Cincinnati at Red Bull (whose home struggles were a theme all season) and NYC over Montreal.
Overall, single elimination has generally favored the superior seeds. Including home MLS Cups (as well as officially neutral MLS Cups in a home stadium, those being 1997, 2002, and 2011), home teams have won 71 of a possible 103 single-elimination MLS playoff ties, for a 68.9% win percentage. Even if you just look at the numbers since this format was adopted full-time in 2019, that number still stays in the same ballpark.
On the flip side, most of the people that bash single-elimination usually point to a return to the old two-leg tie format, used for the league quarterfinals from 2003 all the way to 2018 and for the semifinals (conference finals) from 2011 to 2018. The problem is...that format actually devalued the regular season more.
Those high seeds won 43 of a possible 78 two-leg ties, a win rate of roughly 55%. That’s a pretty drastic dropoff from where it was, and it makes total sense - the advantage of having home field is nullified when a) you play the first game on the road and b) both teams get one home game. It makes sense to have that in a format like the Champions League, where it’s a competition that doesn’t really have merit-based seeding beyond what pots you’re in for the draw. But when it’s based on a grueling, cross-country, 30+ game schedule, and your first game is on the road…is there really much of an advantage?
Not to mention the reason we have playoffs as a culture: theater. Yes, you did have your absolute banger ties (the 2016 Canadian Classique semifinal, the Quakes’ epic comeback on the Galaxy in 2003)…but for the most part the first legs were incredibly skippable. I ran the numbers, and of the first leg results in that era, what were the two most common first-leg scorelines? The answer isn’t really shocking: 1-0 (22 times), followed by 0-0 (13 times). 45% of two-leg ties started with a first leg where one goal or less was scored. When the first legs are that frequently dull, I’d rather just save myself the fixture congestion (and I’m sure the player’s association would agree). This is supposed to be the biggest stretch of the season, the one with the most eyeballs. Making the playoffs stretch with filler snoozefests doesn’t convert those eyeballs to fans.
(For the record, in single-elim MLS, the most common scoreline was 2-1, occurring 21 times; that number is followed by 1-0 20 times, 2-0 17 times, and 3-1 15 times. There have been twice as many 3-2s  as there have been 0-0s  as of this writing.)
And it didn’t help when a higher seed got blown up in the first leg on the road and was basically done by the time they got home, leading to the second leg being nothing but filler - Atlanta/RBNY in 2018, Seattle/Dallas in 2016, and Galaxy/Seattle in 2012, just to name a few. All saw the better seed lay an egg on the road, making the home leg pointless (and the former two both saw said better seed hobbled by late injuries to Best XI level players - Kemar Lawrence for RBNY and Mauro Diaz for Dallas).
The playoffs are supposed to reward a deserving champion. The two-leg format in MLS has proven to be a glorified random number generator.
As for MLS’s proposed group stage format…yeah, no. That is way too convoluted. Isn’t the regular season essentially already a group stage? Why make things more complex? It’s too complicated for the casuals and lowers the stakes for the viewers. People WANT high stakes action, that’s why we have the playoffs. This chucks the stakes down tenfold and lessens the impact of being good in the regular season. And the group stage would be absolutely brutal for traveling fans depending on how spread out the games are - and I’d imagine they can’t be too spread out, due to the international break and trying to finish before it gets too cold in the north.
Don’t overthink this. Stick with what works.
My final conclusions
I preface this with the fact that I am a Supporters’ Shield supremacist. Even with unbalanced scheduling, I think 34 games over 8 months is more indicative of how good a team is than 4 games after that. The Shield isn’t a “curse,” playoffs are a small sample size where one freak bounce can end you. But hey, we live in a playoff society. And that’s the beauty of MLS - multiple trophies are available and winning any of them is a major accomplishment. I just like my consistency over a couple hot weeks, and find it hilarious how people make jokes to invalidate the Lakers, Dodgers, and Lightning rings from 2020 “because bubble rings” as if you couldn’t do that for any other playoff championship.
But I digress. Right now, I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The format is nearly perfect as-is. Single elim rewards high seeds with HFA throughout, and while it does give fewer matches, it scraps dull first legs in favor of what’s essentially one big second leg, with higher stakes and more excitement.
The playoff format is not what’s holding the league back. What’s holding it back is poor promotion and marketing (I can count the amount of playoff plugs I’ve seen on ESPN+ or Fox on one hand) and unambitious or out-of-touch ownership groups.
Thanks for reading MLS Musings! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.