Playoff overhaul isn't coming, but MLS must do more to increase regular season value

BY Sports Illustrated and Brian Straus/Sports Illustrated via Planet Futbol • December 16, 2016

It’s important to appreciate that the Seattle Sounders were merely players, and that they played by the rules and did it well. We’re supposed to hate (or at least examine) the game, not the players, right?

“Teams and coaches, we have to deal with the rules. I let the fans be the one to chatter about whether it’s a good rule or a bad rule, and we just deal [with] the hand we’re dealt,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said during his team’s postseason run.

After another MLS playoff campaign that raised as many questions as cheers, Schmetzer and the fans can be assured that league officials are chattering as well.

This is not about the fact that the Sounders claimed the MLS championship last weekend after failing to register even one shot on goal during a 120-minute final. Toronto FC couldn’t score either. Shots don’t convert to points, and close doesn’t count. The Sounders won the shootout and in so doing, were far from the first team in soccer history to survive a knockout game in which they were outplayed. It’s a low-scoring sport, margins are slim and that lends itself to outcomes like the one at BMO Field. As Clint Eastwood’s William Munny said, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Instead, this is about the fact that for the fourth time in MLS’s 21 seasons, a .500 (or worse) team is league champion. It’s about the fact that we’re told every year how much the regular season matters, only to see the number of playoff qualifiers increase and then seeding reduced to a practical irrelevance. And it’s about the fact that concerns about the postseason format persist, to the point where it’s a topic of conversation throughout the build-up to the league’s marquee event. In no other North American league are the champion’s credentials questioned so frequently, and in no other sport does the method for determining that champion create such distraction.

Again, none of this is the Sounders' fault. Everyone started the 2016 season with the same rules. They all knew it’s probably advantageous to be in good form as the playoffs approach. And Seattle would’ve made the playoffs even if only eight teams qualified. Schmetzer took over, Nicolás Lodeiro arrived and they were 12-3-4 from August on. The Sounders played the game better than everyone else and prospered. And they certainly can make a strong case that their body of work over the past eight seasons warrants a star above the crest.

But this year, Seattle was a .500, fourth-place team. And despite that, the Sounders didn’t have to win a single road playoff game in order to become champion (although they did do so in Colorado). The only “punishment” for trailing three rivals at the conclusion of the regular season was a spot in the knockout round instead of a bye to the final eight. But it turns out those knockout-round matches haven’t been an impediment to participants’ MLS Cup chances. Momentum often mitigates any fatigue the knockout winner might face in the first leg of the conference semis (at home, no less).

The knockout stage was introduced in 2011. Since then, winners have claimed the subsequent series against the first or second seed half the time (eight of 16). In those 16 series, the higher seed has outscored the lower seed only five times. And in three of those six years, a knockout-round winner went on to become MLS Cup champion. The extra game doesn’t represent a hill to climb. If anything, it’s a runway.

That brings us to the next issue: the home-and-home series used in the conference semis and finals. Designed to offer a level playing field in cup competitions and qualifiers, the home-and-home remains antithetical to a seeded competition. That doesn’t stop a bunch of leagues in North and South America from using it anyway, but our concern is with MLS, where the playoff format continues to undercut the regular season. The other four major North American leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL) require a lower seed to win at least once on the road in order to advance to the next round. MLS does not (penalty kick triumphs are technically ties).

Former MLS executive VP of competition, technical and game operations Nelson Rodriguez, who’s now the GM of the Chicago Fire, used to argue that the 30 minutes of extra time afforded the home team in a tied series was a significant advantage. But then away goals were introduced after Rodriguez left the league in early 2014, thus reducing the likelihood of extra time.

It basically doesn’t matter who hosts the first leg. If anything, it’s a slight disadvantage, as the lower seed has an improved chance of taking a lead into the decider. Since MLS introduced home-and-homes in 2003, the higher seed hosting the second leg has a losing record, having won just 32 of 66 series (48%). So much for “home-field advantage.” Compare that to the best-of-three series used in 1996-2002, which required the lower seed to win on the road. The higher seed won 69% of those, which seems like something close to the ideal. The team with the better record has an advantage, but the lower seed has a shot.

The Supporters' Shield winner lifted MLS Cup four times during the seven-year, best-of-three era. The double has been done just twice in the ensuing 14 years, and the No. 1 seed hasn't played in the final since 2011. While MLB and NHL often produce low-seed champions, it’s not a like-for-like comparison. Only 10 teams, or one-third, make the baseball playoffs. If you get in, you’re good. And in the NHL, a lower seed has to survive four grueling best-of-seven series, winning multiple games on the road, to claim the Stanley Cup. Nobody has ever looked at one of those on-ice group photos of the grizzled, exhausted, bearded champions and thought, “Nah, they don’t deserve it.”

Playoffs are great. They force teams and players to perform in the clutch against quality opposition. They create iconic images and lasting memories. But the regular season—the product MLS sells for eight months—has to count for something, too. The ideal playoff format would offer a real, identifiable advantage to the teams that perform better over those eight months. And not only does the MLS format fail to do so, league executives may realize it.

There will be no overhaul. The home-and-home series, despite its awkward prioritization of goals over winning, likely is here to stay. (What other sport changes its scoring system halfway through a competition? Regular season standings aren't decided by goal differential.) MLS executives have said for several years that they want to maintain format continuity. But refinement is on the table, and the league is looking at addressing the seeding issue. It has to. The topic has become a distraction, and MLS can’t afford to have the legitimacy of its final or champion up for debate.

“I think people are going to talk about it no matter what,” said Jeff Agoos, a five-time MLS Cup champion who’s now the league’s VP of competition. “No matter what happens, you’re always going to have some conversation. I think that’s good. And I think it’s good that we continue to try to improve the playoffs and improve the format.”

Speaking to during the playoffs, Agoos said the league is trying to balance making a rash decision based on a smaller sample size and acknowledging what’s becoming increasingly evident—that the regular season has become a pass-fail proposition. “Just get in” is the guiding principle in locker rooms around the league. 

After dispatching D.C. United in the knockout round last month, Montreal Impact goalkeeper Evan Bush said, “This league, it’s just about getting in the playoffs. Everyone wants to have the bye. That’s obviously where you want to be. But you don’t want to kill yourself throughout the season just to get in the top two, as long as you’re in the playoffs.”

Montreal, finished fifth in the East with a .500 regular season record. And it ended up 30 minutes in Toronto away from the MLS Cup final.

Agoos and MLS commissioner Don Garber argue that the regular season retains meaning because of parity. “Just getting in” isn’t necessarily easy. And they have a point. The New England Revolution missed the 2016 playoffs on goal difference. Orlando City was a point behind and the reigning champion Portland Timbers were a win away. If MLS wants to argue that every game and every point matters, those teams would agree.

“I heard a coach many years ago…basically say that the regular season doesn’t have the value that it needs to have and I called him up and I said, ‘What are you talking about? You’ve got a game on Saturday. I think you want to have your team win and you want to have your fans come to the stadium and he said, ‘Commissioner, you’re right,’” Garber told the Planet Fútbol podcast. “Our regular season is valuable, and you know they race until the end. It’s only the last couple of weeks before we even know what our playoffs are going to look like."

Said Agoos, “Getting into the playoffs is a product of what you did in March and what you did in April. You look at the games now, and I’ve had a lot of coaches and players say to me that they realize that every game matters throughout the year … We are at 60% of our teams now qualifying for the playoffs. Next year, it’ll be lower with two new teams [Minnesota and Atlanta] coming in. When we get to 24, it’ll be lower.”

But does the regular season matter once the playoffs begin? Do the lower-seeded teams have a higher hill to climb as they should? The evidence doesn’t look good—maybe it’s an anthill—and if the playoffs and regular season are too distinct, wondering about the worthiness of the league champion will continue. The fact that many still feel the Supporters' Shield is more worthwhile than the official MLS title should be alarming.

“That is a theme that we’ve been talking about for a number of years, to try to continue to emphasize the regular season and reward those teams for a great season,” Agoos said. “There’s different ways to do it. One is a tiebreaker format. The other way we could do it is allow the [higher-seeded] team to choose which leg they want to host. We proposed that, but the technical committee and our subcommittee essentially said, ‘No, we prefer the status quo and the format we have.’”

He continued, “Every person I’ve spoken to has essentially said, we want to play the second leg at home.”

But MLS isn't done pondering changes, although none will occur in the 2017 season. The league is past doing anything drastic. There’s next to no interest in returning to the best-of-three format, even though it offered genuine home-field advantage and prioritized winning games over the bastardization that is aggregate goals. Adding playoff games during an already difficult time of year, when it’s cold and there’s a FIFA window, isn’t on the agenda.

The group-stage proposal, which would see a Confederations Cup-style tournament played by eight clubs (except the top seed hosts all three group games, the second seed hosts two, etc., before the home-and-home semifinals) was discussed several years ago. A positive is that it would engage more fans, because matches featuring teams that weren’t yours would impact your standing. But fears over an unconventional format and the prospect of dead-rubber games ended that conversation.

Agoos confirmed last month that another potential tiebreaker—awarding the two-leg series to the higher seed in case of a 180-minute tie—had been discussed and almost certainly will come up again during offseason competition meetings. Liga MX used to employ it. So there is precedent, and it certainly would give MLS an additional answer when pressed about the value of the regular season.

Agoos said the league isn’t married to away goals, either. They’re trying it out and keeping an open mind, he confirmed. He’s argued in the past that away goals add excitement, since the series result can swing with every goal under certain circumstances. But excitement shouldn’t be the only metric. Letting a tiger loose on the field would be really exciting, but it’s got nothing to do with fair competition.

Away goals devalue the regular season by limiting the higher-seed’s chance of taking a home-and-home series to overtime. Eliminating them would be a quick way for MLS to add additional value to the eight months preceding the playoffs.

And there are other ways. Be bold and reconsider the best-of-three or the group stage (perhaps four of three teams each). Institute the old Liga MX higher-seed tiebreaker or let the seed pick the venue order. Conduct drafts according to overall standing, not in reverse order (it wouldn't impact the playoffs, but certainly would add worth to the regular season). Put the tiger in the lower seed’s locker room. Do something to demonstrate that the playoffs and regular season are two parts of a whole and that both have significant value.

It may happen.

“I don’t accept that the format is an inhibitor of creating value in the regular season,” Garber said. “That being said, every league needs to look at its format to ensure we have it right and in MLS, in that we’re still evolving, we need to look at it even more.”

He added at last week’s State of the League news conference, “There has been a lot of discussion about what we need to do to ensure that we are creating a playoff format that could be exciting for our fans, be great content for our broadcast partners that will drive ratings, and can be an incentive for teams to emphasize the regular season—but also have a fair, competitive format when they get into the playoffs …. Unlike some of the comments I've read from fans, I'm not afraid to make changes. Things change. Things happen, and you've got to evolve and pivot to ensure that you end up in the right spot."

Said Agoos, “I think it’s good that we continue to try to improve the playoffs and improve the format. I have no problem with discussion around this time of year and how we can improve the playoffs. Some of it makes complete sense and some of it is so far out there we wouldn’t consider it …. Ultimately, there’s a consideration for being consistent and having the same playoff format year over year so everyone knows what we’re doing. It’s very confusing for fans year over year, so at some point, we’ve just go to settle on a format and then within that format. we can have a discussion around things like tiebreakers, how many teams are in knockout round and how may teams should get a bye.”