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. Three things we learned from Arsenal vs. Chelsea

    Apr 26, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT

    Arsenal v Chelsea - Premier League Getty Images

    Here’s three things we learned from the Emirates after a lively London derby.

  2. Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Organized Blues defending effectively ends title race

    Apr 26, 2015, 12:55 PM EDT

    ChelseaArsenal AP

    There were few good chances as Arsenal could not find a breakthrough and Chelsea opens up a 10-point table lead.

  3. Oscar headed to hospital after thunderous clash with Ospina

    Apr 26, 2015, 12:26 PM EDT

    How did Oscar not win a penalty? Getty Images

    Despite playing 30 minutes after a dangerous clash, Oscar has been sent to the hospital.

  4. Amid thrown fireworks, Torino wins first Turin derby in 20 years

    Apr 26, 2015, 11:43 AM EDT

    Torino Getty Images

    Torino picked up its first win over Juventus in 20 years, but the fans kept it from being a truly happy day.

  5. Watch Live: Arsenal vs Chelsea (Lineups and Live Stream)

    Apr 26, 2015, 10:29 AM EDT

    WengerMourinho AP

    There is no featured striker on the field for Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho instead selecting six midfielders to interchange.

  6. Everton 3-0 Manchester United: Toffees score early, snuff out visiting attack

    Apr 26, 2015, 10:20 AM EDT

    Everton Getty Images

    Manchester United had nothing to offer as Everton won its third straight against the Red Devils at Goodison Park.

  7. Who were the biggest snubs in PFA’s Premier League Team of the Season selections?

    Apr 26, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    Swansea City v Southampton - Premier League Getty Images

    The PFA have announced their team of the season. But should these 10 players have been involved?

  8. PFA Team of the Year announced: 6 Blues lead the way

    Apr 26, 2015, 9:18 AM EDT

    Chelsea Getty Images

    The likely title winners took up over half of the team of the season, marking their domination.

  9. Belgrade rivalry again results in riots, injuries

    Apr 26, 2015, 8:49 AM EDT

    Belgrade Getty Images

    Fans clashed with each other and with police as objects became weapons and smoke filled the pitch.

  10. Watch Live: Everton vs Manchester United (Lineups and Live Stream)

    Apr 26, 2015, 7:47 AM EDT

    Fellaini Getty Images

    Marouane Fellaini returns to his former club on a much higher note than last season’s visit.

  11. MLS roundup: 20 goals in 4 games Saturday night — WATCH THEM ALL!

    Apr 26, 2015, 12:44 AM EDT

    Tyler Deric, Houston Dynamo Getty Images

    It was a bad night to be a goalkeeper. A really, really bad night.

  12. MLS Snapshot: Vancouver Whitecaps 1-2 D.C. United

    Apr 26, 2015, 12:36 AM EDT

    Michael Farfan, D.C. United & Octavio Rivero, Vancouver Whitecaps Michael Farfan, D.C. United & Octavio Rivero, Vancouver Whitecaps

    Winning on the road in MLS is always impressive. Doing it 3,000 miles from home and with a five-man bench is downright remarkable.

  13. MLS Snapshot: Houston Dynamo 4-4 Sporting Kansas City

    Apr 25, 2015, 10:55 PM EDT

    Jalil Anibaba, Sporting Kansas City Getty Images

    MLS Game of the Year? Probably. It had a little bit of everything, including some amazing goals you HAVE to see.

  14. MLS Snapshot: New England Revolution 4-0 Real Salt Lake

    Apr 25, 2015, 9:42 PM EDT

    Juan Agudelo, New England Revolution Juan Agudelo, New England Revolution

    Good luck stopping the Revs, now that they’ve got a head of steam behind them. Another Cup run looks likely.

  15. MLS Snapshot: Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Philadelphia Union

    Apr 25, 2015, 9:33 PM EDT

    Ethan Finlay, Columbus Crew SC Getty Images

    Crew SC’s four-headed attacking monster completely shredded the Union’s defense. The Black and Gold are very for real.

  16. La Liga & Serie A roundup: Barcelona keep pressure on Real Madrid; Inter Milan top Roma

    Apr 25, 2015, 7:44 PM EDT

    Lionel Messi & Neymar, FC Barcelona Getty Images

    As long as Barcelona keep winning, the La Liga title is theirs. The way they’re going at the moment, they might just win out.

  17. WATCH: The 2 Robbies discuss which Premier League teams will be relegated

    Apr 25, 2015, 6:59 PM EDT

    Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe, The 2 Robbies Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe, The 2 Robbies

    With four teams separated by two points for the final relegation place, it’s becoming an absolute dogfight. The 2 Robbies break it down.

  18. Pearson: “It doesn’t matter how you win games,” as Leicester inch closer to safety

    Apr 25, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT

    Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC

    When in a relegation dogfight, win any way you can. That’s the message from Nigel Pearson, and that’s what Leicester City have done.

  19. Pellegrini: Victory over Aston Villa “one of our worst games of the season”

    Apr 25, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT

    Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City FC Getty Images

    Play poorly and win, or play well and lose? You can’t always have it both ways, which benefitted Man City on Saturday.

Featured video

Should Chelsea be more entertaining?