Nov 6, 2013, 3:00 PM EDT
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Oct 22, 2014, 10:10 PM EDT
The pair of Premier League clubs remaining in the competition face quite different tests on Thursday.
Oct 22, 2014, 9:25 PM EDT
Perhaps it isn’t the sexiest year for rookies in Major League Soccer, but there’s a quartet of names set to stick around for a while.
Oct 22, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT
“I had hope, it maybe didn’t look like it, but it happened,” Wenger said.
Oct 22, 2014, 7:23 PM EDT
“So overall, it’s a squad with a lot of experience playing at the highest level, and this will be another great benchmark for us,” Klinsmann said.
Oct 22, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
Of course many are claiming this “is the beginning of end” for Balotelli on Merseyside. That seems a bit much.
Oct 22, 2014, 5:40 PM EDT
Here’s the bar, Week 33 of Major League Soccer: Please feel free to raise it.
Oct 22, 2014, 4:47 PM EDT
We are at the halfway point in Groups A-D, and some English clubs are concerned about their fortunes to be sure.
Oct 22, 2014, 4:41 PM EDT
It was a night to forget for the home side, as Real ruled at Anfield. Here’s what we learned.
Oct 22, 2014, 4:36 PM EDT
The 21-year-old Honduran international did what a dangerous Alexis Sanchez couldn’t, but Arsenal was rescued late.
Oct 22, 2014, 4:34 PM EDT
Ronaldo, Benzema and co. put on a clinic at Anfield, as Liverpool are taught a lesson.
Oct 22, 2014, 2:54 PM EDT
The CAF claimed Platini said something he didn’t, and it hurt his feelings.
Oct 22, 2014, 2:14 PM EDT
Here’s what it’s like at Anfield, as Liverpool host Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League.
Oct 22, 2014, 1:58 PM EDT
With yesterday’s goal frenzy, will today give us the same excitement?
Oct 22, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT
This is the second time Robinho is under investigation for such an alleged incident.
Oct 22, 2014, 12:17 PM EDT
NYCFC’s first Designated Player will be returning to the United States to fulfill commercial and marketing obligations, and it’s unclear whether he will make his way back to Australia to finish out his loan.
Oct 22, 2014, 11:36 AM EDT
Now that he’s back from a hernia problem, the American told Stoke’s YouTube channel that he is no longer a right-back and the club is aware of where he wants to play.
Oct 22, 2014, 10:51 AM EDT
Rog and Davo gain whiplash from QPR-Liverpool, and the Jurgen Klinsmann-Don Garber saga.
Oct 22, 2014, 10:28 AM EDT
After 10 years with the club, Gourlay has stepped down.
Oct 22, 2014, 9:20 AM EDT
The MLS side was eliminated from group stage play on an away goals tiebreaker as Honduran side Olimpia goes through.
Oct 22, 2014, 8:42 AM EDT
Norwich striker Cameron Jerome complained to Mark Clattenburg that a Leeds player was racially abusing him, and the matter is being investigated.
- PST’s MLS Rookie of the Year: Shipp, Hagglund, Akindele or Birnbaum? 0
- It’s official: World No. 3 Colombia to face USMNT in London on Nov. 14 0
- VIDEO: Top 10 goals of the MLS season (heading into the final weekend) 2
- UEFA Champions League roundup: Madrid clubs, Borussia Dortmund roll 0
- Three things we learned as Real Madrid rout Liverpool 0
- Arsenal’s Podolski, Gibbs break Belgian hearts in left-for-late win 0