MLS will continue to evaluate its playoff format after making substantive changes to the postseason structure over the past few years, according to MLS commissioner Don Garber.
The MLS Board of Governors approved a decision to expand the playoff field from 10 teams to 12 teams this year after the arrival of New York City FC and Orlando City and the contraction of Chivas USA. The decision introduced a second Knockout Round game in each conference.
Those changes followed the adoption of the away goals rule last season, the implementation of two-legged conference finals in 2012 and the introduction of the Knockout Round when the playoff field increased to 10 teams back in 2011. Garber said the league reviews the playoff format after every season and ponders potential alterations moving forward.
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“I’m one that believes we should continue to look at our playoffs to ensure we’re providing the most compelling competition for our fans,” Garber told FOX Soccer by phone this week. “We should not be afraid to make changes just so we can have consistency. I’d rather get it right and then lock it in for a long period of time when we’ve come to that determination.”
This particular postseason included enough drama to justify the expansion of the playoff field. MLS Cup hosts Columbus Crew SC needed extra time to defeat Montréal Impact in the Eastern Conference semifinals, while fellow finalists Portland Timbers survived an 11-round penalty shootout to defeat Sporting Kansas City in the Knockout Round. Both teams also clinched their berths in the final in second-half stoppage time on Sunday.
Those tense affairs — plus FC Dallas’ comeback against Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference semifjnal — punctuated a postseason filled with plenty of upheaval. Garber cited the competitive nature of those matches and the jostling for playoff berths in the final weeks of the regular season as a few of the benefits of the current setup.
“We’ve had a terrific playoff run,” Garber said. “I continue to believe that we have a very competitive format. We had 17 teams in the running just a few weeks before the end of the season. We had some very competitive matches. I really look forward to having Portland and Columbus — with two young coaches and two young owners and a passionate local fan base — meeting in MLS Cup.”
There are competitive balance issues to contemplate with regular-season powers often struggling in the postseason, though.
Higher-seeded teams have struggled to reach MLS Cup since the league introduced a two-legged conference final format three years ago. Columbus and Portland reached MLS Cup by winning the first leg by two clear goals at home and then securing the necessary result on the road.
Those results reflect the trends established over the past few years (only one higher-seeded team has reached MLS Cup in eight attempts) with an admittedly small sample size. They also raised the question of whether the format provides enough of an advantage based on regular season performance.
At this point, the prospect of further alterations ranks far down the pecking order with MLS Cup ahead at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday, but Garber said the league plans to review its options after the campaign ends.
“I don’t know whether we’ll make any changes going forward,” Garber said. “It’s certainly not contemplated now [in the buildup to MLS Cup]. But we will look at it in the offseason — as we do every year. We’ll see if there are any decisions that we may need to make to make it even better than it was this year.”