Wait, MLS did something right?
Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA 4.0
High Noon is a classic film in the western genre. Gary Cooper is the town marshal. News arrives that murderous outlaws he sent to prison are free and will arrive in town on the noon train. The odds stacked against him, Cooper seeks support from the townfolk he has protected all these years. One after another, they give false promises or make various excuses why they can’t help. As the train whistle sounds in the distance and he realises he’s alone, Cooper has two choices: leave town or stay to fight. In the end, he stays, fights and wins.
The film was epic, fully deserving the six Oscar nominations received and three won. But what if Cooper decided to leave town at the end? Just get on his horse and ride? Or if he faced the outlaws and it turned out they had come to thank him for turning their lives around and ask if he needed any deputies? What kind of endings would those be? How would the audience react to them? Probably in the same manner they have to recent Major League Soccer playoff campaigns: wondering why they invested so much time in a story with such a flat conclusion.
The problem with the MLS post-season as it existed were two-fold.
First, the league must play a summer schedule. North American winters are simply too long and harsh to play entertaining, competitive soccer. Gridiron football can adapt to harsher conditions than association football because players can carry the ball in their hands. They aren’t required to control it with their feet while staying upright on slippery, frozen turf. MLS games in December and January would be ice hockey without skates and sticks.
Second, FIFA schedules international breaks in October and November that interrupt the playoffs. Not only must the league twice hit pause on the remote for a fortnight, ruining the viewing experience, players’ focus shifts to other duties when the idea is for commitment, emotion and suspense to build.
Not such a problem in Europe, where the season determines the champion rather than just the participants in a subsequent tournament, the playoffs as they existed crippled MLS as a competitive product in the North American market. Supporters in the US and Canada live for post-season playoffs. They’re the meat in their sporting meal. The regular season is the broccoli and brussel sprouts your parents forced you to eat. While some fans may be vegetarians in the literal sense, their sporting diet is strictly carnivorous. Constant interruptions at the season’s most important juncture forever confined MLS to the niche category beneath American football, basketball and baseball in the consumer’s list of viewing priorities. Something had to be done to give the game a fighting chance against overwhelming odds.
Happily, Major League Soccer rewrote its script for 2019 to provide a suitable ending to the season’s adventure. Like the causative factors that produced the problem, the solution was twofold. First, the league expanded its playoffs to include 14 rather than 12 teams. Second, they went from a two-legged format in the Conference semifinals and finals to one-off meetings in every round, with the entire tournament scheduled between the two international breaks on FIFA’s calendar.
Expanding the playoffs makes sense because the entire league is expanding. Twenty-three teams competed in 2018. In 2019, FC Cincinnati brings the number to a round two dozen. In 2020, Nashville and Miami will raise the number to 26. MLS Commissioner Don Garber recently told reporters he believed the league could expand beyond the targeted 28 franchises to 30 or more. Sixteen of the NBA’s 30 teams and the NHL’s 31 participate in their respective postseasons. MLS is giving its fanbase what they expect by adding more teams to the fray.
The Eastern and Western Conference first-place teams will bypass the first round in the 2019 MLS playoffs. The six teams below each will pair off with the second, third and fourth-place sides hosting the seventh, sixth and fifth respectively. The victors pair off again, playing each round at the higher-seeded team’s ground all the way through to the MLS Cup.
Creating a genuine homefield advantage along with the first-round bye gives almost the entire league meaningful matches to play right down to the wire. The top two or three teams in each conference will chase first place for the opportunity to gain seven more days to rest and work with stars returning from the October international break. Mid-conference teams will pursue the third and fourth spots to ensure at least one round is played on their home turf. Teams in eighth, ninth and tenth will fight to keep their hopes alive as long as possible.
The four playoff rounds fit neatly into the four weekends between FIFA’s October and November breaks. With no outside interference, fans can enjoy the full playoff experience without interruption. For once, a North American soccer competition has made a sensible decision that is good for the game. Someone give the Devil a blanket.