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Posted at 4:08 PM ET, 02/23/2011

MLS sets new playoff format

By Steve Goff

*The top three finishers in each conference (six overall), plus the next four clubs based on points and irrespective of conference affiliation (known as wild cards) will qualify for the 10-team MLS playoffs.

*The four wild-card teams will be involved in single-elimination games -- No. 1 wild card vs. No. 4 wild card, No. 2 wild card vs. No. 3 wild card -- at the higher seed's venue.

*After those first-round matches, the lowest surviving seed will face the Supporters' Shield winner in a two-game conference semifinal. The other wild-card survivor will play the No. 1 seed from the opposite conference of the Supporters' Shield winner. The second and third seeds from each conference will play each other in the other conference semifinals.

*The four conference semifinals will be decided by two-game aggregate series (no change from previous years).

*The two conference finals will be single matches hosted by the higher seed (no change).

*MLS Cup is a single match at a site to be determined (no change).

For much more.....

"While there will be some who say that expanding the playoff field dilutes the regular season, we believe that in a certain way, it actually enhances it," said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president. "It will mean that the battle and the race for the playoffs will have added intensity and last longer through the regular season. And that, on balance, should be a good thing for the play on the field, and for the fans."

The cynical side of me says: Okay then, Mr. Rodriguez, why not promise playoff berths to 16 teams, thus intensifying the regular season even more? Or open the playoffs to all clubs and re-name it the "second regular season"? I do like the single-game rounds, but why leave the conference semifinals as two-game aggregates? The theory behind it has always been to reward playoff teams with a home game (ticket revenue, publicity, etc.). In this case, the league would reward six teams instead of the usual eight.

MLS has also left open the possibility of altering the playoff format as Montreal (2012) and a 20th club (as early as 2013) join the league in coming seasons, Rodriguez said.

Click here for additional details and comments.

By Steve Goff  | February 23, 2011; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  MLS  | Tags:  MLS  
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Comments

I like it but the final should be held at the home of the team with the best record. Even Dallas might come close to selling out.

How long will it take the MLS to learn from last years showing in Toronto?

Posted by: francisco_11 | February 23, 2011 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I dig it.

Posted by: Pete803 | February 23, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

meh...

Until DC United make the playoffs again, this type of news is, I guess, more of an FYI.

Posted by: TCompton | February 23, 2011 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I guess this is how Garber appeals to the casual fans who clearly get the one game-two game-one game thing. This and rivalries.

Posted by: I-270Exit1 | February 23, 2011 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure how this is much of an improvement on the previous ridiculous system that Garber supposedly wanted to abolish. In fact, under the new system we could see an Eastern Conference team win the West and a West team win the East.

At the very least they could have made a provision that the wild card winners could have been assigned to the proper geographic conference semi-finals if teams from opposite conferences survived. This is beyond farcical.

Posted by: benonthehill | February 23, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

My concern is time. The wild card games add at least a week to the playoffs. Is the Cup going to be in December now?

Posted by: revsfanindc | February 23, 2011 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Yeah time seems to be the issue here, otherwise I like the setup. Like Goff said on Twitter, it would have been nice for the semifinal games to be one-off's as well at the higher seed to have the playoffs be the same length-wise.

Posted by: PEddy | February 23, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

This would be better if we just got rid of the conference set up. It really just offers nothing.

Posted by: grubbsbl | February 23, 2011 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Yet again, I have to ask, why do we need conferences at all? Just make it one big table. Take the top 8 teams if you really must have playoffs. Why do we even need playoffs? Let the table topping team be the league champs. Just like any other league in the world. I suppose if you must have a "cup" champion too you could concoct some sort of tournament. But winning the league is the real accomplishment, not the team that just happens to get hot at the right time to win a few matches in a row once the playoffs roll around.

Posted by: fedssocr | February 23, 2011 4:50 PM | Report abuse

To make it into a true spectacle and bring in the tons of fans, they should make the MLS Cup final a series of 7 games played over a span of 2 weeks across the nation on aggregate score.

Posted by: TenoriosLaptop | February 23, 2011 5:00 PM | Report abuse

You know, with the playoff format changing every year it only draws attention to how stupid they are. Get rid of them. Instead of trying to appeal to an "American fan base" that really wants nothing to do with your sport, try appealing to those fans who are dying for reasons to believe in your league.

Posted by: Matte | February 23, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse

And then yeah, open your cup competition to all league teams. You can have the thrill of the elimination games, and still have the marathon that is the regular season. You can even have both competitions culminate at the same time. Oooh, exciting.

Posted by: Matte | February 23, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Neutral final site, wild cards, conferences, play-offs?

Garber is really trying hard to be an NFL commissioner.

Posted by: cjtalamantez | February 23, 2011 5:07 PM | Report abuse

The theory behind it has always been to reward playoff teams with a home game (ticket revenue, publicity, etc.). In this case, the league would reward six teams instead of the usual eight.

Unless I'm badly misreading something here, all eight conference semi-final teams will still be guaranteed a home game.

Posted by: BooThisMan | February 23, 2011 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Playoffs are uniquely American or "North American" since the Mexican league does something similar. All other major professional leagues in the US use playoffs and make no pretense that the team with the best regular season record is the "champion." Note that in those leagues where the points winner is "champion", there also is a vibrant domestic Cup competition and teams that don't finish "first" may qualify for other multi-national competitions. Those circumstances do not apply to MLS in the U.S.

There is no reason for MLS to try to buck that trend. If that really stops someone from following MLS, I guess they also would refuse, on principle, to follow MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL for the same reason. Instead, it is a Euro-centric affectation to argue otherwise in a U.S. setting.

Posted by: griffin1108 | February 23, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

as im fairly certain they are not going to do away with conferences, im really hoping they are moving towards keeping playoff teams within their conference. either top 4 or, 5 with 4 v 5 'wild card'.

goff - how are only 6 teams getting home games? could be 10 as i see it...

Posted by: rainORshine | February 23, 2011 5:22 PM | Report abuse

if the MLS playoffs actually drew a crowd (other than in Seattle) I could buy the argument that American fans require it. The only people who seem to get excited about MLS playoffs are Don Garber and his lackies.

Posted by: fedssocr | February 23, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

They should make goals worth 6 points, with an extra point from the penalty spot. Ooo and a red/white/blue striped ball!

Ahem. If you're going to have conferences, then you unbalance the schedule and pick the best 4 from each conference, like baseball. No wild cards. If you're going to have a balanced schedule, just pick the top 8 and drop the conferences.

Posted by: kuzmatt9 | February 23, 2011 5:25 PM | Report abuse

The one change I was hoping for -- a final played at the home venue of the highest finisher in the regular season -- didn't happen.

Too bad, since one way to get casual fans excited is to see the passion in the crowd when watching on TV. That doesn't come through when the final is played at a neutral venue. It's almost, but not quite, as depressing as watching Spain and Holland play a closed, utterly boring game with casual American fans who then get turned off to the whole sport. I hated saying "... but... but... it's usually not this boring to watch!"

Posted by: WorldCup | February 23, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Last year KC finished 9th with an 11-13-6 record and Chicago finished 10th with 9-12-9 record. Even with the addition of two new teams, there probably will be a team in the playoffs with a loosing record. The league may call this parody, but I think it looks bad for the league and will deter teams from trying to win games but go for more ties. For all you NHL fans, think of all the 3 point games at the end of the season. It makes it hard to jump over teams to get into playoff position when teams in the playoffs are only looking to tie the game. And they could be boring as hell also.

Posted by: timmy6 | February 23, 2011 5:32 PM | Report abuse

"While there will be some who say that expanding the playoff field dilutes the regular season, we believe that in a certain way, it actually enhances it," said Nelson Rodriguez, MLS executive vice president.

The phrase "in a certain way" is doing a heck of a lot of work in that sentence.

Posted by: kuzmatt9 | February 23, 2011 5:34 PM | Report abuse

@timmy6,

The league probably calls it "parity," but "parody" actually isn't too far off.

Posted by: benonthehill | February 23, 2011 5:41 PM | Report abuse

if the MLS playoffs actually drew a crowd (other than in Seattle) I could buy the argument that American fans require it.

Team - Average Regular Season Attendance (2010) - Average Playoff Attendance (2010)

San Jose - 9,659 - 10,525
New York - 18,441 - 22,839
Columbus - 14,642 - 10,322
Colorado - 13,329 - 14,826
Dallas - 10,815 - 11,003
Los Angeles - 21,473 - 27,000
Salt Lake - 17,095 - 19,324
Seattle - 36,173 - 35,521

Posted by: BooThisMan | February 23, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

@BooThisMan,

Helpful data. Also, without promotion/relegation, killing the playoffs would lead to a lot more meaningless games and likely hurt regular season attendance.

Posted by: benonthehill | February 23, 2011 5:54 PM | Report abuse

So it's the same cluster as before just with a preliminary round and more confusing rules? Um, great job, Don. WTF.

Posted by: mjr24 | February 23, 2011 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Playoffs are uniquely American or "North American" since the Mexican league does something similar. All other major professional leagues in the US use playoffs and make no pretense that the team with the best regular season record is the "champion." Note that in those leagues where the points winner is "champion", there also is a vibrant domestic Cup competition and teams that don't finish "first" may qualify for other multi-national competitions. Those circumstances do not apply to MLS in the U.S.

There is no reason for MLS to try to buck that trend. If that really stops someone from following MLS, I guess they also would refuse, on principle, to follow MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL for the same reason. Instead, it is a Euro-centric affectation to argue otherwise in a U.S. setting.

Posted by: griffin1108 | February 23, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

The U.S. has a domestic cup championship, it has for almost 100 years. It's called the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The MLS also has several multi-national competitions it participates in -- there's the CONCACAF Champion's League as well as the SuperLiga. MLS teams also have the opportunity to qualify for and play in the Copa Sudamericana.

So the idea that there aren't any competitions outside of the MLS Cup playoff race that club teams can aspire to and win is false.

Posted by: mercurysnake77 | February 23, 2011 6:05 PM | Report abuse

In trying to see the positive in this new system, and the playoff system as a whole I found myself constantly comparing it to the European league system and I realised the flaw.
The current system makes the actual league itself redundent and with 10 out of 18 teams making it you will much of the season as a exercise in futility. The playoffs themselves can be entertaining mainly because of the all or nothing feel of a knockout tournament. This is nullified by the decision to include home and dull away matches at the Semi Final stage. So what's the alternative? A league structure? As it stands no as there is no promotion/relegation in the MLS so having one big league wouldnt work....or could it? My suggestion would be to stop fighting to be different and American and follow what has worked for over 100 years elsewhere. Major change is needed.
*Have one large division - 1 winner decided by points.
*Have relegation to USL
*Have a simultaneous complete knockout cup competition styled after FA Cup that includes USL at early stage.
*Improve standing and size of CONCACAF Champions League and also set up another cup with maybe Australian league that requires league position to qualify for.

These will give every position in the league a chance of fighting either against relegation or for qualification. The cup competition will add silverware and the whole thing will seem, whilst a little European, a lot less like it was concocted by the Marx brothers.

Posted by: TheRedcoat | February 23, 2011 7:00 PM | Report abuse

Re: attendance stats

Historically in MLS, playoff matches have drawn fewer fans than the average regular season match.

Is it any surprise that Jersey had more fans in the playoffs? Glory hound doesn't begin to describe that "fan base".

Same goes for an LA team that was sans-Beckham for most of the season, and an FC Dallas team that has always had poor attendance.

Back to the new playoff format; it stinks.

I agree that all the matches should be single games at the highest seed. The reason other "Cups" around the World have 2-legs for elimination rounds save the final, is because their seeding isn't based on a full season of matches. By only having matches at the higher seed, you truly give teams incentive to play tough all season.

Posted by: alecw81 | February 23, 2011 7:50 PM | Report abuse

"there also is a vibrant domestic Cup competition and teams that don't finish "first" may qualify for other multi-national competitions. Those circumstances do not apply to MLS in the U.S."

Or, put another way, they DO apply, as has been pointed out. Every condition is in place to get rid of the playoffs and run the MLS cup as an in-season tournament, play an even schedule and make the points winner the champion. USOC winners and high league finishers are rewarded with CCL berths. It diminishes MLS Cup much less than it puts the better teams more in the spotlight where they belong.

The "rivalry" stuff is also entirely the wrong idea. Why go backwards? Show some growth; as time goes on, every pairing between first-division clubs should be a rivalry with its own distinct history. Forcing things the other way downgrades the intensity of the full season calendar more than it amps the intensity of whatever is considered a "natural" rivalry to begin with. If Auburn and Alabama played each other four times a year, it would just get boring.

Posted by: Godfather_of_Goals | February 23, 2011 8:12 PM | Report abuse

OK, so now we know United opens the playoffs against "the lowest surviving seed." The only real question is who will the lowest remaining seed be?

I predict it will be New England.

Posted by: 9Nine9 | February 23, 2011 8:56 PM | Report abuse

"Now let's give a warm welcome to YOUR 2011 Western Conference Champions D................C..............UNITED!"

Posted by: Pedalada | February 23, 2011 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Lets just hope we're still talking about the change in October.

23 days until United's first 2011 league match!

Posted by: Curious99 | February 23, 2011 9:00 PM | Report abuse

@mercurysnake -- The U.S. Open Cup may be a 100 years old, but no one pays any attention to it -- look at the venues and attendance for matches involving MLS sides. It's note the equivalent of an FA Cup or even the Carling Cup. Same for CONCACAF Champions League -- it is new and draws in the US like the Open Cup. Super Liga? a SUM marketing gimmick not a real competition.

You didn't convince me, trying to make MLS look like a European league is a fool's errand. Garber may not have it right, but whatever MLS becomes, it will have a North American flavor, not European.

Posted by: griffin1108 | February 23, 2011 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Historically in MLS, playoff matches have drawn fewer fans than the average regular season match.

Cite? The attendance averages by regular season are here, and by postseason are here.

In nine of fifteen MLS seasons - including the most recent four - the playoffs drew higher averages. The differences in favor of the playoffs also tend to be larger. For example, the regular season outdrew the playoffs by 3,000 or more only once (in '01), but the playoffs outdrew the regular season by 3,000 or more on four occasions ('98,'07,'09 and '10). I don't have time to compute the overall averages by weighing for number of games each season and postseason, but it doesn't seem likely that your claim is consistent with this data.

Regardless, the numbers I previously posted clearly debunk the claim that the playoffs don't draw a crowd outside of Seattle. Galaxy, Red Bull and RSL drew very well last year, and insulting their fan bases does nothing to change that. Colorado also did alright in the conference final, but their semifinal number drags down their average.

Actually, the conference finals seem to always draw pretty well, but the semifinals can struggle, especially when Columbus or New England are hosting (something to do with the weather, perhaps?). On the other hand Galaxy, Dynamo, Fire and Sounders in 2009, and Chivas, Dynamo and Fire in 2008 were all good to excellent semifinal draws.

Posted by: BooThisMan | February 23, 2011 11:07 PM | Report abuse

[Irr]egardless, the numbers I previously posted clearly debunk the claim that...
_____________________________________

Fixed your post.

Posted by: universityandpark | February 24, 2011 8:33 AM | Report abuse

@ benonthehill

Ha, Thanks for the correction

Posted by: timmy6 | February 24, 2011 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I love MLS, but having more than 50% of your teams make the playoffs is stupid. They should not reward mediocrity.

Posted by: PrinceBuster21 | February 24, 2011 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I'm very disappointed that MLS did not really hear the howling from fans against cross-conference playoff seedings. They are trying to have it both ways but in the end it's confusing and frankly embarrassing. I agree that they should decide whether they want conferences or rewarding regular season performance. If the former, then eliminate the cross-conference seeding - if the latter, then go to a single table. Personally, I'd prefer the traditional conference format as it builds rivalries and is understandable by every American sports fan. I'd also be fine with a single table.

Posted by: DaveTheRaver | February 24, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

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