The MLS Cup Playoffs are way too long, but there's no obvious fix

BY Ryan Rosenblatt • December 14, 2016

The MLS Cup Playoffs started on October 26 and yet here we sit, going into the second weekend of December, and they're still going. Teams who made the playoffs haven't played a match in more than seven weeks and the postseason isn't over yet.  It will take the league 46 days to play 17 matches across four rounds and crown a champion.

To say the playoffs go on for way too long is an understatement. But even while acknowledging that MLS would benefit from a much shorter postseason, there isn't an obvious fix.

MLS is dealing with a couple of pretty major problems: the November international break and football.

The 34-match regular season doesn't end until October and they've already increased the number of midweek matches to get it done then while also better respecting international breaks and June international tournaments. It would be exceedingly difficult to condense the season any further. So by the time the postseason starts, they're already well into the fall and finishing the playoffs before the November international break is nearly impossible.

Unless the league schedules playoff matches during the international break, which would mean teams playing their most important matches without many of their best players, they have no choice but to take 12 days off in the middle of November. That's a 12-day break in the middle of their postseason that they can't really avoid.

MLS also has to deal with college football and the NFL. Those sports monopolize attention on the weekends. Pushing MLS Cup back this season to the second weekend of December has allowed them to get into a Saturday night window after the end of college football's regular season. It's a prime spot for their biggest showcase match and one the league probably doesn't want to give up.

So what do you do when you have a great date for MLS Cup and can't get around a 12-day break in November?

It's impossible for MLS to significantly shorten the postseason unless they change the current format. They could go to single-elimination in each round and start the postseason after the international break, but that makes for a short playoffs window that doesn't make for the best and most interesting product in the season's showcase. After all, the current format is arguably the best they've ever had.

With six teams from each conference making the playoffs, the competition for a postseason spot is more competitive than it has been before and will only get fiercer as the league expands. Giving the top two seeds byes through the knockout round also gives the regular season's best teams a legitimate and significant advantage. In all, having 17 total matches isn't overly cumbersome, either. It's a pretty good number that allows the league to showcase its best teams, build drama and, over two rounds, guarantees teams a home match, which is great for fans.

The only realistic solution is to change the entire league calendar, ditching the March-December schedule and playing from August to May, as is common throughout the rest of the world. Then the postseason wouldn't be played at the same time as football, they won't have to deal with international breaks in the playoffs and the end of the season would be much smoother. But seeing as MLS Cup is already set to be played in sub-freezing temperatures this year, the idea of putting more matches in the winter and none in the summer, when the league does pretty well, isn't exactly appetizing. There's a reason the league has considered it before and even more reason they've decided against it.

So what is MLS to do? To be frank, there isn't a clear answer here, which is tough to accept.

These playoffs have been arguably the most exciting and high-quality in the league's history. There have been great matches and storylines galore. But there's no doubting that it takes too long and the breaks deal a blow to the momentum and excitement of the postseason, even for the biggest of MLS fans.

The MLS Cup Playoffs need to get shorter. It's hard to argue otherwise. But there's no obvious way to make the MLS Cup Playoffs shorter. It's a tough spot to be in.

 



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