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Major League Soccer’s playoff pace, timing utterly nonsensical

Nov 6, 2013, 3:00 PM EDT

Will Bruin;Boniek Garcia

The pace and rhythm of Major League Soccer’s playoff stinks. It’s broken, largely ineffective and fairly nonsensical. There’s no other way to say it.

It’s really about a larger problem with MLS priorities: League stability now largely achieved, steady growth now a pleasant reality, Major League Soccer can now lean into the business of refining its product. And nowhere is refining (“reforming” actually, in this case) more important than in year-long scheduling. The concerns are myriad, including the problematic issue of playing through FIFA fixture dates, TV time slots that don’t make a lot of sense, the loss of opportunity in a lack of simultaneous final-day kickoffs and more.

Over the last few days, we’ve seen another troublesome, pot-holed road of MLS scheduling: a playoff docket that works against the league in so many ways, in limiting ticket sales and in stripping away any chance to build meaningful post-season momentum.

Let’s start here: Major League Soccer is committed to its playoff system. Not everyone agrees it should be this way; a day never passes in MLS supporter circles without impassioned debate over whether traditional world soccer models – single table, no playoffs, plus promotion-relegation – should decide the championship. But American sports are about playoffs, and I happen to believe that’s fine.

So MLS is committed to playoffs, and fair enough. League deciders favor the playoffs so much that three years ago they added two teams to the post-season field, getting more teams involved not only in the post-season, but in the truly exciting stretch run, the dramatic playoff races that (league officials hope) create memories, adding interest and fans along the way. So, fair enough to all that.

But it makes no sense to draw a big red circle around your post-season and point toward that show cow all year – and then fail to make it a priority in overall scheduling.  The league builds and builds and builds toward the playoffs – and then “Poof!”  So much of it is over in about 10 minutes.

(MORE: Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks about low turnout)

If we isolate scheduling, it really looks like the playoffs are just something MLS sticks on the back of the regular season. As in, “All right, let’s get this over with!”

First thing that happens: Teams often get two or three days to sell the first match. That’s why Seattle had just 32,204 in attendance for its elimination game against Colorado, a contest that kicked off just two-plus days after the final regular season kick. A few days after that, Seattle was back on the field again, this time playing before 38,507. Both are great numbers in domestic soccer – but well below average for the Seattle Sounders.

Along with the final regular season match, MLS policy forced Sounders FC to ask its fans to buy tickets three times within seven days. And that’s a tough ask. Bottom line, when Seattle is having trouble selling tickets to important matches, something has gone very wrong.


Both Seattle playoff matches at home so far fell well south of this swell attendance number; this was the final regular season match at CenturyLink.

Houston had issues selling playoff  tickets, too, no real surprise considering the Dynamo didn’t know it was in the post-season until final day – and then had seven days to sell two matches. (Yes, other sports, NBA, NHL, etc., face tight sales windows at playoff time. But as we all know, and yet sometimes conveniently forget during these conversations, MLS is not the NBA or even the NHL.)

TV becomes problematic, too, with so little time provided to sort out the particulars. MLS had major trouble ginning up network interest in last week’s elimination matches. Neither of tonight’s matches (where the league’s largest market club, New York, could be eliminated) will appear on an English-language national outlet.

Aside from ticket sales and missed opportunities to create sponsor involvement and TV interest, MLS gives itself and its clubs zero chance to build some real marketing momentum along the post-season way.

The season ends. Three or four days later, two teams are gone. A week after that, four more are out.

Think about that: Within 11 days of the final regular season whistle, 6 of 10 teams are gone! The bulk of the playoffs – remember, that big red circle the league has pointed to over an entire year – are history in just 11 days.

That is what MLS wants its playoffs to be about?

The single-game, 4th-vs.-5th elimination match is fine – but put it on the weekend after the final regular season match. (And for heaven’s sakes, stop putting one of the first MLS playoff contests on Halloween! People are out and about, not home watching sports.)

(MORE: MLS loses opportunities with no final-day simultaneous kickoffs)

Then stretch these conference semifinal series over two weekends. Give them some room to breathe. We see fantastic momentum build during playoff series runs in baseball, basketball and hockey. Those are multi-game sets, of course, and MLS is fine with its two-game, home-and-away format – but give them a chance to create some energy in the market, at least.

None of this even addresses issues of fairness or technical quality. Play, travel, play, travel … that’s hardly a recipe for great soccer.

Mostly though, MLS just doesn’t give itself a chance to exploit the meaningful post-season narratives, the memory makers that create club history and build legacy. And that’s a real shame.

It’s not that difficult: Add a couple more regular season weeknight dates – and then avoid them at all cost during the post-season.

Generally, when creating the overall schedule, MLS needs to start with a playoff schedule that makes sense, and then back into the regular season from there.

  1. perrinbar - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:33 PM

    As an additional point on the Seattle numbers, I’d bet a large percentage of the numbers were only due to the fact that season ticket holders could choose to buy their seats a week or so ahead of the end of the season. The current schedule essentially kills any of the additional seat sales you might see.

  2. mlsconvert88888 - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:42 PM

    Also, you would think the teams playing the first leg on Saturday, would play the second leg on Wednesday, and respectively for the other teams on the Sunday/Thursday games. But for some reason NY/Houston played on Sunday and now on Wednesday. What’s up with that? Both of those teams have their own stadium so I don’t see scheduling conflicts.

    • Steve Davis - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:49 PM

      That’s absolutely correct. I thought about that one (and a couple of other issues) but sometimes less is more when you want to make a bigger point. So … thanks for adding on and keeping the good discussion going

      • @C_Tobin - Nov 6, 2013 at 7:51 PM

        Not to pile on, but the Portland fans are also pretty pissed by the Saturday Thursday schedule. Oregon plays Stanford in probably the Pac 12 game of the year Thursday at 6 PM. The Timbers kickoff at 8 PM, those fan bases have significant crossover.

        Instead of playing Portland’s home game Wednesday, MLS chose to play both Eastern Conference games on Wednesday overlapping by an hour and inconvenience the local fanbase.

        I suspect the reason is NBCSN wanted the Portland home game regardless of scheduling. And NBCSN has Wednesday Night NHL every week, so Wednesday was out.

        On a side note MLS’s other national TV partner, ESPN, is committed to Wednesday Night NBA and ESPN2 has a college football game. They really should have avoided Wednesday night entirely.

        But Univision Deportes is CH 455 on Directv if you want to watch the Red Bulls v Dynamo. They are in the midst of what looks like a nicely produced 1 hour pregame show focusing on MLS.

      • dabeeeeez - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:33 AM

        Not sure why this is perceived to be an issue. The match-ups for these Wednesday and Thursday midweek games were based on which day teams are playing the following weekend, not the prior weekend. That makes sense to me. With round 1 of the Eastern Conference final on this coming Saturday, NY and Houston would have been furious with a schedule that had them playing on Thursday, both because it would only be two days rest and because the winner of SKC and NE would have had an extra days rest.

        There are some real issues to discuss with the playoff schedule that are driven by when the schedule ended, the international dates, and the Thanksgiving holiday, but this isn’t one of them. (In my opinion).

  3. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:52 PM

    Yes, yes and yes.

  4. bostonredsoccer - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:57 PM

    Could someone come up with a suggested schedule that includes:
    * No play on FIFA dates
    * Minimized mid-week league matches
    * Space for USOC and CCL
    * Includes the suggested playoff formula above
    * Doesn’t have matches played in really cold weather?

    I would really be curious what it would look like. We see lots of suggestions, but I haven’t seen anyone put out a mock up. Even if you don’t look at stadium scheduling conflicts, you are going to have to do some trimming of the # of matches or something else to make it fit.

    • bostonredsoccer - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:59 PM

      And can we do something about 10:30 pm ET West Coast matches on the weekends? It’s ridiculous to have late Sunday matches that the whole country would like to take a look at.

      • socamr - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:03 PM

        And can we do something about 430 PT East Coast matches too? It’s ridiculous to have late afternoon matches when it’s so nice out and I want to be out with my family playing a little soccer.

      • Steve Davis - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:18 PM

        Shame, too … b/c some of those have been dandies this year. But you are absolutely correct … how many folks in the East (or even in CT) are staying up to catch those?

      • mikeevergreen - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:20 PM

        No, I’d say we have NBC can the Friday night Leno rerun and do “The Late Game From The Coast” on NBC itself. Market the late time to young people.

    • robe1300 - Nov 6, 2013 at 11:18 PM

      If the season had begun on February 9 (which, as I recall, is three weeks earlier than it began this season) and ended on November 9 (so 2 extra weeks on the end of the season), you can fit in 35 matchdays while avoiding play on FIFA dates (only ones with official games being played and not friendly-only dates) and without any league play during the middle of the week. Obviously, starting in early February and ending the regular season in early November might be cold but without making some concessions and going with some midweek matches here and there, I don’t know whether your proposal is completely possible (I mapped all of this out in an Excel sheet). Without reducing the number of league games or admitting that there will be some play during less than ideal temperatures, it would be extremely difficult to fit all competitions in.

      For the record, I’m in favor of stretching the season out a little bit and easing schedule congestion for teams (while allowing them to try and win all major competitions). But in order to do that and avoid play on FIFA dates, cold temperatures would be a must.

      • bostonredsoccer - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:29 PM

        I’m okay with reducing the number of matches and even pushing some games to midweek, but I appreciate it when someone actual does map it out and looks at the problems that arise (some are caused by an odd number of teams, to be sure). It’s never as easy as people seem to think and it would take some compromise to get to the schedule everyone clamors for.

    • mikeevergreen - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:17 PM

      28 or 30-game schedule, with March 1st start, would allow for everything you want. No need to play so many games, especially when early and late season games are sparse attendance (souns like baseball!). CCL will always be week nights, and should be. USOC should have one round on weekend in March, two on weekends in June and July, one in August, and final should be on a Saturday night. This is our FA cup, let’s give it royal treatment.

  5. dubrie34 - Nov 6, 2013 at 3:58 PM

    Even little things like making the higher-seed play at home during the week is mind-boggling. Weekday games are already a hard sell in every environment, why penalize the higher seed by making them play mid-week instead of just adding 3 days to the already bloated schedule to align the games in a way that rewards the higher seed for a better regular season.

  6. geojock - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    I am actually okay with the midweek play-in game as it is more of a playoff play-in that a playoff it self. The midweek conference semi finals are what is ridiculous.

  7. joeyt360 - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:44 PM

    There is a counter argument that goes like: want more days to pre-sell tickets? Great, play well enough to get a bye (or at least well enough to win the play-in). The same Houston team drew twice the crowd for the Conference Semis that they had drawn in the wild card.

    Though I’d like single-elims better from a ‘reward the better records’ perspective, it’s pretty clear the league doesn’t (they changed the Conference Final *from* a single elim *to* the 2-leg only recently, after having had years to evaluate it), possibly because teams likely clear their variable costs and then some even at a crowd of 10k, and the owners want to be able to say they hosted a playoff game (the Lamar Hunt Theory).

    • perrinbar - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:49 PM

      That’s a silly argument in that the league wants all the games to sell better. Part of their goal isn’t to handicap attendance at one team’s games.

  8. dfstell - Nov 6, 2013 at 4:50 PM

    All good points. Isn’t the reason for the congestion to punish the 4th/5th place teams by making them play so many games in a few days (which the 1-3 teams are resting)?

  9. talgrath - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:06 PM

    All year the league has teams play one game a week, then when the finals hit they have some play three games in a week. Why not compact the schedule a bit with more 2 games a week (when CCL and Open Cup isn’t going on) so that there’s more time for the playoff, playing 1 game a week, maybe 2 a week for the play-in teams?

  10. rawmustard - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:20 PM

    At least in terms of other North American leagues, they’ll start selling playoff tickets before a team is guaranteed a spot and refund if a team doesn’t make it (or the next round). There’s no reason why MLS clubs couldn’t do the same. For two-legged ties, there should be a week between legs. It’s what any other competent football competition does.

    • dabeeeeez - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:49 AM

      I bought this kind of conditional ticket for all MLS playoff games for my home team. I can’t speak to other teams, but I’d have to guess they do something similar. Also, they don’t even have to issue a refund, as I only get charged if/when a game occurs.

      As for the two-legged ties, I agree there should be a week between games. That’s how it was last year and I suspect how the league would like to do it. However, the problem this season was the international dates and how they fall in the middle of November. I think everyone would agree that this schedule is not ideal, but I haven’t heard a great solution. End the season earlier? It’s already congested enough and we already played too many games on international dates. Abandon the two-legged ties? We do for the MLS Cup, so we could for the Conference Finals, but personally I like the home-away. Play on Thanksgiving weekend and/or push the Cup back further?

  11. bobinkc - Nov 6, 2013 at 5:50 PM

    Talgrath, I don’t know which team(s) you follow, but the teams I am interested in frequently play 3 games in 7 or 8 days at least twice during the regular season, so that argument doesn’t wash. The regular season is tough enough on the players the way it is. We might as well look toward playing the championship game on Christmas Day to satisfy your requirement.

    Raw, SKC provides the opportunity to season ticket holders to buy tickets for the full set of playoff rounds at least 2 weeks before the season ends. As far as refunding money for tickets not used for games not played, that process gets really expensive quickly. Selling the tickets on credit cards requires a fee for the charge (2-4%) and another fee on the refund (1.5-3%). By the time you pay out 3.5-7% of the ticket price for every ticket not used, it has a tendency to mount up fast. (I worked retail from age 15 to 65; the percentages are what various sized retailers would pay. You will have to ask your local franchise what percentage they pay. It’s still expensive no matter which way you slice it.)

  12. futbolhistorian - Nov 7, 2013 at 2:01 AM

    You know MLS has come a long way when playoff crowds of 32k and 38k aren’t good enough, Seattle being the venue in question notwithstanding …

  13. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Nov 7, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    Here’s a great way to deal with all these problems.

    Have single elimination play-offs.
    1. An entire week of rest, hype and marketing can be done.
    2. Playoff seeding would matter. A lot.
    3. Games would be more meaningful and on weekends for higher ratings and attendance.

    Have 3 weekends with the first 3 rounds, then give 2 weeks for the Cup. A total of 5 weeks. November would be MLS play-off time.

    Have the MLS Cup on the evening of Black Friday, nothing to compete with, except Black Friday itself.

  14. mikeevergreen - Nov 7, 2013 at 3:11 PM

    Reform? Start with 30-game season. Same start date, end 1 month earlier. That allows for 1 playoff game per week on a weekend when attendance will be better. Week before FIFA play and week after FIFA play – two games in week. That makes up for missed weeks.

  15. petertyler - Nov 11, 2013 at 8:15 AM

    A lot of good points all over the thread.

    My basic thoughts:

    In US sports culture, playoffs are a critical part of fan/viewer enthusiasm build-up. It’s extremely important that you get these right– they’re a big opportunity for PR/advertising/marketing/ticket sales. MLS has been throwing away a huge opportunity to gain more fans/viewers.

    MLS needs to find _some_ way to get playoff dates nailed down earlier such that there can be some ticket presales other than season tickets. Whether this is from a season stretched out over more months, or simply calendaring playoff dates on a league-wide basis, it needs to happen such that fans know where and when to expect playoffs. And avoid Halloween, at that.

    I think single elimination playoffs are a great idea. . . for now. When the league has at least NBA-level viewership and attendance numbers, yeah, go back to a best-of series.

    As to shorter seasons– flat out infeasible at this point. When there are enough teams and enough media traction such that MLS nearly rivals NFL for attention/merchandising, then you can talk about shorter seasons. Right now, this league needs long seasons just to keep the lights on, especially with expensive DPs.

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