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NFL playoff construction right; MLS construction, not so much

Jan 6, 2013, 8:30 AM EDT

Sounders FC Sporting Kansas City Soccer

I’m watched the NFL playoffs yesterday, taking a wee break from our game. But I’m never very far from thinking about soccer. So …

I could not help but think about how the ratio of NFL teams that qualify for the playoffs is spot-on perfect, whereas Major League Soccer’s more lenient qualification policy continues to leave me feeling a tad underwhelmed.

And that’s frustrating, because there are so many areas where Major League Soccer simply cannot compare to the mighty NFL. In any measure of public appeal, it’s no contest, so there’s little cause for comparison.

But in terms of procedures and policies, there’s no reason why MLS cannot match its much bigger “football” brother.

In NFL, 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs. That’s 37.5 percent, or slightly more than a third. Combine that with the fact that NFL teams get just 16 cracks at regular season success, every single game day is a biggie.

By contrast, Major League Soccer’s more forgiving format provides safe playoff passage to 10 of 19 teams. That’s more than half.

And that’s still too many.

The result is too many regular season matches that still don’t carry sufficient weight. (Yes, it would help if there was a promotion-relegation structure – but that’s not going to happen, so let’s not wander down that rabbit trail just now, please.)

Think about this: in the NBA, 16 of 30 teams qualify for the “tournament.” That’s about the same as in MLS, right around 53 percent. They play a whole bunch of regular season games (82), which is the primary reason the regular season is sometimes reduced to a punch line, due to that lack of weight attached to each individual contest.

While the NBA condition is mostly about having so many regular season games, it is also about a playoff format that allows safe post-season passage for too many mediocre teams.

Want to identify one way to instantly make MLS games a little more exciting through the bulk of the season? Go back to the days when just 8 clubs made the post-season. That would certainly help.

  1. dfstell - Jan 6, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    I totally agree. 10 is just too many and leads to complaints like we had this year when a #4 and #5 play in the final. But, it only seems like too many because the MLS Cup is perceived to be a competition for the singular championship of MLS.

    I know this isn’t the purpose of this piece, but I’d love to see you talk more about the Supporter’s Shield. I know there are a lot of soccer purists who wish we didn’t even have playoff soccer, but I love the playoffs. However, I think we should do more to celebrate the Supporter’s Shield winner. I know it isn’t perfect with the imbalanced schedule, but it’s not perfect in other leagues either with mid-season transfers, red card suspensions, injuries to key players, etc.

    I’d love it if the Supporter’s Shield got feted a lot more and then the playoffs were treated as some kind of “post season cup”.

    One of the beauties of soccer is that we have all these different races going on. When I first got into soccer it was confusing as hell, but its really kinda cool to see how teams have to juggle schedules to compete in and prioritize different competitions.

    But, WE can all do better with the Supporter’s Shield just by talking about it more. There’s no reason we call can’t do things like blog posts about “The Race for the Shield” and publish rankings on a monthly basis, run some rudimentary numbers of strength of schedule, etc.

    • Dan Haug - Jan 6, 2013 at 2:34 PM

      I agree with you 100%.

      I would love to see MLS be more willing to recognize that there are multiple competitions every season, and that all carry different weight, but can be equally exciting.

      The one thing I wish MLS would do is go back to the balanced schedule. Another thing that the league could do is go to a schedule more like Liga MX, with the Apertura and the Clausura, and 8-team tournaments at the break (there is nothing more exciting than tournament soccer).

      There are so many great models of competitions out there, I’m sure MLS leadership could get together and figure out something that would work.

      • dfstell - Jan 6, 2013 at 6:29 PM

        I’d wish for a balanced schedule too. But even without it, we can still laud the Supporter’s Shield winner even with it’s flaws.

        It can really matter as much as we fans say it does. If we’re vocal about it being a big deal and treat it as a big-time accomplishment…..then it is one. Obviously it can’t be just one or two of us, but if we all talk about it and discuss the race for it, then it will continue to matter.

      • leviramsey - Jan 9, 2013 at 11:05 PM

        I’ve developed a compromise format. This format has the apertura/clausura, allows for some form of balanced scheduling, and preserves the MLS Cup as the culmination of the season. It does, though, likely get rid of the All-Star Game. It also provides a workable framework for expansion well beyond 30 clubs, which would allow for local derbies or for MLS to move into markets where it would have less competition.

        With a move to apertura/clausura, MLS can move to the August-May calendar, and this plan assumes that that occurs.

        Apertura (August-December). Split into nationwide divisions based on performance. Ten teams in the premier division, 6, 8, or 10 in the lower divisions. Home-and-away round robin. Leader of the premier division at the close is awarded the Supporter’s Shield. Promotions and relegations for next year’s apertura are also determined in this competition (would probably go 3 up, 3 down between divisions). Competition would be up to 18 games per team spread over 27 rounds, including midweeks; teams would specify 12-16 rounds that they would prefer not to play at home (e.g. Dallas and Houston would probably opt out of home games in August; New England, Toronto, Chicago, etc. would likewise opt out of November/December). The smaller lower divisions would reduce the chance of having hard-to-sell games in unsuitable weather between against a visitor from across the country.

        Clausura (February-May). Divided into regional conferences of 8, 10, or 12 teams (22 teams: 10+12; 24: either 12+12 or 8+8+8; 26: 8+8+10; 28: 8+10+10; 30: 10+10+10). Points from the apertura carry over with teams playing in an 8 team apertura division getting 6 equalization points (they played four fewer games, so assume 2 wins, 2 losses) and those in a 6 team apertura division getting 12 equalization points. Home and away round robin schedule. There would likely be a lot of midweek games, but these games would be at reasonable times for TV in both markets and with less travel time.

        MLS Cup would go back to being an eight-team playoff. Conference champions would be assured entry, beyond that a UEFA-style coefficient system would determine the allocation of the six remaining berths before the season. Seed based on conference finish with ties broken by apertura division finish.

        4 CONCACAF CL places awarded in the following priority (Canadian teams would continue to qualify separately; if a Canadian team or a team which has already secured CCL finishes in a place, move down the list) (listing assumes 2 conferences in clausura, but for 3+ conferences, the modification is obvious)

        1. MLS Cup champion (to give the Supporters’ Shield winner something to play for in the clausura)
        2. Supporters’ Shield champion
        3. US Open Cup champion
        4. Conference champion with the best apertura finish
        5. Conference champion with 2nd best apertura finish
        6. MLS Cup runner-up
        7. Supporters’ Shield runner-up
        8. US Open Cup runner-up
        9. Conference runner-up with best apertura finish
        10. Conference runner-up with 2nd best apertura finish

        As I see it, the benefits of this also include fostering regional rivalries (the top clubs in the East and West will play each other at least 4 times a season) while avoiding cross-country mismatches. It’s not that far off from the NFL’s practice of having first-place and fourth-place schedules. There’s some form of promotion and relegation.

        All-Star game could be replaced with a tournament: put two leading foreign clubs into a tournament with the MLS Cup champions and a Rest of MLS All Star team.

  2. ndnut - Jan 6, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    Then maybe we can try to give the Shield away at the last regular season game. Trust me, I know that we are not like the EPL in very many ways, but I like your proposal and I think the best way to go about it is adopting that tradition of Europe.

  3. wfjackson3 - Jan 6, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    I think they should only be letting 6 teams into the playoffs.

  4. bleed4philly - Jan 6, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    Lenient playoffs is just a money grab, less teams making the playoffs makes the regular season more important. Totally agree.

  5. tylerbetts - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:31 AM

    Two very good points already in these comments.

    Yes, we need to make the Supporters’ Shield worth more in public eyes. That starts with the media covering the SS winner and giving them serious credit as the champion of MLS. Many fans (myself included) view MLS as having two champions every year (unless you get the double the Galaxy had in 2011). That adds a lot of importance to the regular season.

    Second was that last point – yes, putting extra teams in the playoffs is a money grab. But, at this stage of MLS, isn’t a money grab that works exactly what the league needs? The league is still not on all that solid of financial footing. So, if they can make a few extra bucks by having the 9th and 10th best teams get into the playoffs, so what? If that helps to continue to strengthen MLS as a league, then it’s an overall good thing. Short-term is it good for viewability? Probably not. Long-term, is it good for the league? Absolutely. It probably falls under one of those categories of “unnecessary evils”.

  6. charliej11 - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:47 AM

    Unfortunately for you commenters above, the Supporter’s Shield will be dead in a few years. The unbalanced schedule will only get worse making it irrellevant (I say it is there now).

    8 teams should be where the league is at for playoff teams, but the league needs to keep everyone interested so they put too many in. It is definitely a parity league, so not the end of the world, but you would like a good balance of making the regular season mean something.

    They are not going to reduce the 50% in level, so the best way to do that is have more playoff games and give home field advantage. Trying to give home field advantage and then making it home and home series is insanely dumb. Like most things when you try to appease the “do it like the rest of the world crowd” it is beyond insanely dumb.

    • valiantdraws - Jan 6, 2013 at 7:31 PM

      Charlie…read my reply down below.

  7. geojock - Jan 6, 2013 at 12:04 PM

    I agree that there should be less teams; however, there is sound reasoning the status quo. MLS is young and needs to maintain the competitive balance or at least the perception of competitive balance. The same reason the league makes it easier for bad teams to get good and harder for good teams to stay good. MLS’s young and delicate fan bases need the image of success for all teams.

  8. greej1938l - Jan 6, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    Love your passion Steve, love it!

  9. subliminalmonk - Jan 6, 2013 at 4:07 PM

    I couldn’t agree more. Less teams in the playoffs makes more to lose during the season. It is simple.

    • weremoose10 - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM

      The only downfall is that more teams are eliminated from contention half way through the season.

  10. jpan007 - Jan 6, 2013 at 6:25 PM

    It’s obvious the league will have more than 19 teams in next years. so maybe playoffs would look like you wan it.
    you guys want to run before learning to walk. the league is young, give it time

  11. valiantdraws - Jan 6, 2013 at 7:30 PM

    I think 8 would be better. But, as long as playoffs are home-and-away style, that should weed out some pretenders. People can argue that the playoffs reward teams who are hot, and penalize teams will overall consistency. But, I feel that if you’re the better team, then you should be winning. Period.

    With the Supporters Shield, if we can get back to a balanced schedule, cool. Otherwise, let’s give each conference their own trophy and really make it a thing. Western Conference champion gets a first round bye, and any other appropriate advantage.

    Maybe make the conference playoffs a round robin competition, with the conference champion allowed to play all 3 games at home (this is assuming there is 4 teams per conference). The next highest seed hosts 2 games, then next team 1, then the last seed plays all road games. If they want 10 teams bad enough, make the bottom seeds play-in to the conference round robins. The team with the most points at the end of the competition goes to the championship game.

    I dunno. Just an idea. I wish the Supporters Shield could survive for the MLS Regular Season Champion, and the MLS Cup for the MLS Cup Champion. But, the Shield is toast unless we can get back to balanced schedule.

    • valiantdraws - Jan 6, 2013 at 7:33 PM

      By championship game, I mean MLS Cup final.

    • Dan Haug - Jan 6, 2013 at 8:36 PM

      You touch on the whole “home field advantage” thing for the playoffs… which is another controversial issue.

      As to your point that “the better team should be winning” no matter the competition… That is what the Galaxy have pretty much done since Arena showed up. They have won the SS twice and the Cup twice… and all four competitions in different ways (as the favorite and as an extreme underdog).

      On the other hand, I agree that the SS will become less meaningful unless they figure out a way to make it fair – the easiest way, obviously, being a balanced schedule.

      One last point… fewer playoff spots eliminates more teams earlier in the season and could have the unintended effect of making the second half of the season less exciting. I’m sure someone skilled in combinatorial optimization could develop a test that would tell us how many playoff spots would create the most variability over the longest time period.

      • valiantdraws - Jan 7, 2013 at 3:37 PM

        Well, 10 teams would work if there is a play-in, which I think is an easy solution.

  12. weremoose10 - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:58 PM

    I think the solution is simple. Shorter season, Longer playoffs with only 8 teams as you said.

    One suggestion:

    Once we get to 20 teams it would be easy to have home and away within each conference (no need for teams to cross conference play until the playoffs). That is only 18 regular season games during the season for each team. It would make each game mean more.

    The playoffs could then go into “Champions League” format with two 4 team groups. The top two teams from each group move onto the semifinals with higher seeds hosting. Then the Cup Final is hosted by the highest seed.

    When you break the season into parts it makes each team really focus on winning in the short term and there is no room for complacency from a team or they will be eliminated.

    • valiantdraws - Jan 7, 2013 at 3:37 PM

      This is pretty much what I said exactly already.

  13. dangerousdave44 - Jan 7, 2013 at 4:58 AM

    One of the good things about soccer is that there are multiple types of tournaments that can reward multiple types of teams. You have the league winners, who are rewarded for being the strongest over a season (in leagues in Europe like the EPL, these are almost always the teams who are wealthy, and have basically paid for the privilege to compete for this trophy). Then you have the cup trophies, where teams have more of a chance to go on fairytale runs against larger clubs due to having to “get hot” and win a string of games.

    Certainly, the rest of the world find winning the league more important than the cup. Look at UEFA qualification in Europe – EPL winners go into the Champions League while FA Cup winners make the Europa League, basically because winning a league is a better guarantee that a team is good.

    In Australia (where I am) we have a similar situation of a culture where winning a playoff/cup type final is more important in the public view than winning the league.

    The way I see it, winning both are pretty exiting (especially the double). The league champion seems to be more important outside of domestic soccer (In the AFC Champions league, only our League Winner gets direct entry, the Grandfinal winner has to win a playoff game against a Thai team), and this international scope is a big advantage of Soccer over other sports, but the (mainstream) public is more interested in the Cup final, which is who to want to direct your game to, to grow this great sport.

    Both are important, for different reasons. Doesn’t really answer the question as to playoff teams, however. Sorry about that.

  14. gazza305 - Jan 7, 2013 at 1:37 PM

    Good article Steve.

    Only thing – I wish MLS playoffs were 1 match at the higher seed. Just like the NFL. Too many post-season games already. I want the MLS Cup to be done by the first week in November.

  15. joeyt360 - Jan 7, 2013 at 7:21 PM

    “While the NBA condition is mostly about having so many regular season games, it is also about a playoff format that allows safe post-season passage for too many mediocre teams.”

    — That’s not true about the NBA (I’ll give you the NHL though), for a simple reason–in the entire history of the NBA playoffs in the current configuration, only one team lower than a 4 seed, the 1995 Houston Rockets, have ever won a title. (In fact, only one other team lower than a 3, the 1969 Boston Celtics, won the title.)

    The teams in the lower half of the bracket know they have very little chance to win the title, and as a result, what gets devalued is not the regular season (that’s pretty much entirely the fault of the 82 game schedule), but rather the first round of the playoffs themselves. Going by history, every first round matchup features at least one team with basically no shot, and the 4-vs-5 matchups usually feature two. And the faithful fans basically know this, though they might not have the stats, so the first round is usually a dud.

    The other thing to consider is two fundamental differences between basketball and soccer:
    1) The existence of the draw: the draw is a confounding variable–it adds noise, not signal, to the conclusions about who’s better and who isn’t.
    2) Scoring is easy in basketball, which tends to mean that it is somewhat rarer for the more talented team to not win–and much, much rarer when you play 7 game series.

    Me personally, I think there was only one team that got to the playoffs last year that ‘didn’t deserve’ to be there (in the sense that there was never any stretch of games over the course of the season when they looked like one of the better teams in the league); and that team, Vancouver, was gone almost as fast as you knew they were there.

    I am far more concerned with the treatment of seeds once you get to the playoffs than how many teams get there–because mathematically, that is the dominant factor in how ‘important’ MLS regular season games are. If low seeds are almost worthless (like the are in the NBA), then even teams that have clinched the playoffs will play to the hilt to try to get better ones.

    Going to 10 teams rather than 8 turns out to have been an improvement, because it basically halves the odds for the 4 seeds while leaving everyone 3 and up alone.

  16. joeyt360 - Jan 7, 2013 at 7:27 PM

    “Go back to the days when just 8 clubs made the post-season. That would certainly help.”

    And I hate to end on a confrontational note, but the above is why I can tell anyone advocating an 8 team playoffs is advocating symbolism over substance. 6 teams, and you can make a pretty good mathematical argument. 8 teams just, as a mathematical fact, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    If you like, you can just pretend MLS *still* has an 8 team playoffs (only it takes an extra elimination game just to make it). The top 6 teams have exactly the same odds they always did, even if you think the playoff series are a total coin flip (I hope they aren’t, but I worry they’re too close for comfort)–1 in 8, whereas teams 7 and 8 are worse than they were before (1 in 16).

  17. valiantdraws - Jan 7, 2013 at 10:52 PM

    I still say my solution is the best one. Weremoose10 mentioned a plan just like it. And I think my idea actually came from Grant Wahl a couple of years ago.

    Two conferences, 10 teams.

    Each conference send the top 3 teams to a round-robin group competition. The 4th and 5th seeded teams play each other for the 4th spot in the round robin. The 4th seed hosts the 5th seed.

    The round robin is 3 games for each team. The #1 seed conference champions play all their games at home. The 2nd seed plays 2 games at home. The 3rd seed plays one game at home. The 4th seed plays all games on the road. The team with the most points advances to the MLS Cup Final.

    The makes the standings count in the regular season. It allows the playoffs to be just one game against each opponent.

    As for a solution to promotion/relegation, what if we docked the bottom two teams 3 and 6 points, respectively, at the start of the season?

  18. valiantdraws - Jan 7, 2013 at 10:54 PM

    BTW, I don’t mean a solution in the sense that there is anything wrong with the current setup, because I don’t feel that MLS needs promotion/relegation. But…I dunno, it would be an interesting incentive for the teams at the bottom of the standings to penalize them points the following season.

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