Will big changes help MLS long-term?

Major League Soccer is poised to make some major changes after the 2010 season, though Sunday night’s MLS Cup might have made at least one of the potential changes look extremely questionable.

MLS commissioner Don Garber revealed on Sunday night before MLS Cup that the league will move from eight playoff teams to ten, and MLS will also take a serious look into changing the league’s calendar away from a spring-fall schedule to a fall-spring schedule to move in line with the rest of the world.

Garber cited FIFA’s continued desire to see MLS align itself the more traditional calendar used by Europe’s top leagues, and many of the leagues in the world. The league still has to deal with issues pertaining to weather, when exactly to run the season, and how long a winter break to incorporate.

Changing to a European calendar could lead to more games in extreme weather, with Sunday’s MLS Cup final in Toronto (played in 43, but with wind chills in the 30s) serving as en example of what we could see much more off under a new calendar. MLS could try to load up winter months with games in warmer markets, but cold-weather games, and even games in snow, could be inevitable if MLS makes such a drastic change.

The positives of a calendar change would be that MLS could incorporate a larger schedule and avoid having players miss MLS games playing in summer FIFA tournaments. Those are the benefits, along with appeasing FIFA, that are driving MLS to consider a change that would have been regarded as impossible not too long ago.

The calendar change is still just an idea to be worked on. The actual change Garber did reveal on Sunday was that MLS was going from eight to ten teams and the league would set up a system that prevents a repeat of this season, when two teams from the Western Conference played in the Eastern Conference final.

The change to ten teams sure seems counter to what Don Garber stated about the MLS regular season needing to be worth more. By allowing ten playoff teams, MLS could go back to the time of having teams with losing records in the playoffs.

It is clear MLS hasn’t decided exactly how the playoffs will work, but having the fourth and fifth seeds in each conference play in a one-game playoff to reach the playoff quarterfinals could make for some more dramatic playoff matches. While that may be, having two more teams make the playoffs certainly diminishes the value of postseason berths.

MLS is considering other incentives to reward teams who do well in the regular season, but as long as you have more fringe teams making the playoffs the greater the chances that you have a mediocre regular season team qualify for the playoffs and eliminate teams who were stronger in the regular season. MLS is clearly looking at ways to make it that much harder for regular season strugglers to make the type of late-season runs made by teams like Real Salt Lake last year and the New York Red Bulls in 2008.

Whatever MLS does with its playoff format, it needs to find one worth keeping long-term as quickly as possible, because the yearly tinkering doesn’t exactly make the league look good, especially when the tinkering doesn’t improve things.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.