Skip to content

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.

source:

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.

Latest Posts
  1. USA vs. Guatemala preview: USMNT’s final tune-up before 2015 Gold Cup

    Jul 2, 2015, 10:05 PM EDT

    Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT Jurgen Klinsmann, USMNT

    One last chance for Jurgen Klinsmann to tinker and fine-tune before the USMNT defends its Gold Cup title.

  2. 2015 Gold Cup — Group C preview: Hobbled Mexico still favorites over Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba

    Jul 2, 2015, 7:08 PM EDT

    Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico Giovani Dos Santos, Mexico

    Mexico may have lost two Gold Cup starters in the last week, but they’re still heavy favorites in Group C.

  3. 2015 Gold Cup – Group B preview: Costa Rica’s to clash with Canada, Jamaica, El Salvador

    Jul 2, 2015, 3:35 PM EDT

    Brazil Soccer WCup Netherlands Costa Rica AP

    Here’s a look at who Los Ticos will have to get by in the group stages. Can Canada and Jamaica make a deep run?

  4. Guardiola urges Manchester United target Schweinsteiger to make up his mind

    Jul 2, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    Bayern Muenchen v Borussia Moenchengladbach - Bundesliga Getty Images

    Pep is more than happy to keep Schweinsteiger around at the Allianz next season, but he’s becoming a little restless.

  5. Thursday’s Transfer Rumor Roundup: Pogba to Barcelona, Ramos to Manchester United

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:40 PM EDT

    Sergio Ramos's early brace sparked Real Madrid to a dominant display in Munich. (Photo: AP Photos.) AP

    The latest gossip is right here, with updates on two monster transfers.

  6. Mark Sampson: “England achieved things no one thought we could”

    Jul 2, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT

    Japan v England: Semi Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Getty Images

    England’s head coach was full of pride and admiration for his team despite falling at the semifinal hurdle.

  7. Clint Dempsey replaced by Michael Bradley as USMNT captain for Gold Cup

    Jul 2, 2015, 11:57 AM EDT

    Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley

    Kilnsmann reveals he has decided to take the armband off Clint and hand it to Bradley.

  8. Despite devastating World Cup exit, England’s women inspired a nation

    Jul 2, 2015, 10:25 AM EDT

    Despite defeat to Japan, England's women have inspired a nation this summer. Despite defeat to Japan, England's women have inspired a nation this summer.

    Describing the scene from England, as the Lionesses helped to inspire a nation this summer in Canada.

  9. Report: Abou Diaby heading to MLS, FC Dallas after Arsenal release

    Jul 2, 2015, 9:23 AM EDT

    Stoke City v Arsenal -  Barclays Premier League Getty Images

    French international is reportedly mulling over an offer from FCD. What do we think about this?

  10. Huge blow for Mexico: Javier Hernandez breaks collarbone, out of 2015 Gold Cup

    Jul 2, 2015, 8:47 AM EDT

    Javier Hernandez Javier Hernandez

    Manchester United’s “Chicharito” will not play for El Tri this summer after being injured in a friendly.

  11. US ask Switzerland to extradite seven FIFA officials

    Jul 2, 2015, 7:40 AM EDT

    65th FIFA Congress Previews 65th FIFA Congress Previews

    The U.S. Department of Justice wants to bring FIFA officials accused of corruption to the USA.

  12. Round 3: USA-Japan Women’s World Cup final a familiar matchup

    Jul 2, 2015, 12:59 AM EDT

    150702-Wambach-Sawa Getty Images

    Japan beat the U.S. to win the 2011 World Cup. The U.S. beat Japan to win the 2012 Olympics. Round 3 takes place Sunday in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final.

  13. Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup roundup: Dwyer bags four, RBNY top Cosmos, quarterfinals set

    Jul 2, 2015, 12:28 AM EDT

    Sporting KC's Dom Dwyer (14) heads a ball over the New England Revolution's Jose Goncalves (23) in the first half at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images) Getty Images

    A Major League Soccer franchise is going to win the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

  14. “She’s in a hard place”: England boss Sampson consoles, praises Bassett after semifinal loss

    Jul 1, 2015, 11:57 PM EDT

    Sampson consoles his players after the crushing defeat. Getty Images

    Mark Sampson spoke in detail about the character of Laura Bassett and how he hopes girls in England are inspired for the future.

  15. Bassett’s long journey takes cruel twist, but England women show future is bright

    Jul 1, 2015, 11:11 PM EDT

    Laura Bassett of England is comforted by her teammates. Getty Images

    Full credit to England for an inspiring World Cup, and to Japan for getting to a second straight World Cup final.

  16. Clavicle injury could cost Mexico’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez his Gold Cup (video)

    Jul 1, 2015, 10:51 PM EDT

    during practice for the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 5, 2015 in Montreal, Canada. Getty Images

    Three weeks from tonight are the Gold Cup semifinals, with the final on July 26 in Philadelphia.

  17. The world wants Laura Bassett to know that her own goal is nothing to be ashamed of…

    Jul 1, 2015, 10:11 PM EDT

    during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Semi Final match between Japan and England on Canada Day at Commonwealth Stadium on July 1, 2015 in Edmonton, Canada. Getty Images

    From Brandi Chastain and Jeb Brovsky to total strangers from England and beyond, my goodness, people are trying to console Laura Bassett.

Featured video

PST Extra: Done deals & transfer gossip