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. Report: Aron Johannsson wants MLS move, but clubs hesitant to meet salary demands

    Jul 31, 2015, 4:41 PM EDT

    <>during the 2015 CONCACAF  Gold Cup match between United States and Haiti at Gillette Stadium on July 10, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Getty Images

    Johannsson had already said he wants to play Stateside in “his prime”, but a Yahoo Sports report said his desires have obstacles.

  2. PHOTOS: Orlando City unveils designs for third-largest stadium in MLS

    Jul 31, 2015, 3:54 PM EDT

    Orlando Sentinel Orlando Sentinel

    The Lions will continue to play at the Citrus Bowl until the new venue is completed.

  3. Lambert revival? English striker moves to West Brom from Liverpool

    Jul 31, 2015, 3:16 PM EDT

    wba.co.uk wba.co.uk

    Is this the case of a 33-year-old who’s over the hill, or can he return to the form which saw him score double-digit goals and assists?

  4. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Southampton

    Jul 31, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    southampton

    Will the Saints keep marching up the PL standings? Maybe a European campaign will derail their progress?

  5. Aston Villa sign Rudy Gestede, Jordan Veretout as Sherwood continues French revolution

    Jul 31, 2015, 1:18 PM EDT

    Wolverhampton Wanderers v Aston Villa - Pre Season Friendly Getty Images

    After signing nine new players this summer, is Sherwood taking a gamble?

  6. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Stoke City

    Jul 31, 2015, 11:55 AM EDT

    Stoke City logo

    Can the Potters build on their best-ever PL finish last season? The top eight is a possibility for Hughes’ side.

  7. Jose Mourinho issues Chelsea injury update; believes Arsenal can win Premier League

    Jul 31, 2015, 10:59 AM EDT

    FBL-ENG-PR-COMMUNITY-CHELSEA-ARSENAL FBL-ENG-PR-COMMUNITY-CHELSEA-ARSENAL

    Blues boss compliments Gunners, gives update on injured duo ahead of Community Shield match.

  8. After 12-year absence, Southampton wholeheartedly embrace European return

    Jul 31, 2015, 9:47 AM EDT

    Southampton v Vitesse - UEFA Europa League: Third Qualifying Round 1st Leg Getty Images

    Soaking in the atmosphere on a special night at St Mary’s, as Saints’ Europa League campaign began.

  9. Chelsea’s John Terry calls out haters, says rivals jealous of his success

    Jul 31, 2015, 8:50 AM EDT

    150527-John-Terry Getty Images

    Terry: “Regardless of what people say, you can’t take away what I have won and done in the game.”

  10. Theo Walcott signs lucrative four-year contract at Arsenal; Cazorla extends

    Jul 31, 2015, 7:55 AM EDT

    Walcott Getty Images

    Gunners keep experienced duo around, as Walcott decides to stay at the Emirates.

  11. Where in the world is Angel Di Maria? Man United boss Louis van Gaal has no idea

    Jul 30, 2015, 9:27 PM EDT

    Louis van Gaal & Angel Di Maria, Manchester United FC Louis van Gaal & Angel Di Maria, Manchester United FC

    Louis van Gaal seems to have misplaced his club’s $90 million investment, purchased just 12 months ago.

  12. Anfield exit looming? Balotelli, Borini left out of squad for Liverpool’s final preseason games

    Jul 30, 2015, 8:10 PM EDT

    Mario Balotelli, Liverpool FC Mario Balotelli, Liverpool FC

    With three attacking signings already made this summer, Balotelli and Borini look destined to leave Liverpool before the transfer deadline.

  13. Report: Julian Green will start season with Bayern Munich reserves, not on loan

    Jul 30, 2015, 6:24 PM EDT

    Julian Green, FC Bayern Munich Getty Images

    Julian Green will be playing in the fourth division of German football to begin the 2015-16 season.

  14. David Beckham’s Miami MLS team is getting a really, really bad stadium deal

    Jul 30, 2015, 5:05 PM EDT

    Marlins Park — Miami Marlins Marlins Park — Miami Marlins

    The terms and conditions of building a stadium next to Marlins Park couldn’t be any less favorable to the prospective MLS franchise.

  15. CONCACAF president to review refereeing department after Gold Cup fiasco

    Jul 30, 2015, 4:02 PM EDT

    Mark Geiger — Panama vs. Mexico — 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup Mark Geiger — Panama vs. Mexico — 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup

    CONCACAF’s refereeing department could be in line for something of an overhaul in the coming months and years.

  16. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Norwich City

    Jul 30, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    Norwich City FC Norwich City FC

    Back in the Premier League after a season away, can the Canaries stay up and solidify their place among England’s elite?

  17. Mauricio Pochettino: USMNT’s DeAndre Yedlin could go out on loan

    Jul 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    2015 MLS All-Star Game Getty Images

    Following Tottenham’s 2-1 loss to the MLS All-Stars, Mauricio Pochettino said he is unsure as to where Yedlin will be playing next season.

  18. Zlatan says his next move will be “a very big surprise”

    Jul 30, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT

    Zlatan Ibrahimovic AP

    Zlatan’s contract with Paris Saint-Germain expires next season, but he won’t let anyone know his plans for the future.

  19. Premier League 2015-16 season preview: Newcastle United

    Jul 30, 2015, 12:10 PM EDT

    newcastlecrest

    Last season was a complete disaster for Newcastle. Can Steve McClaren turn things around for the Magpies?