New England Soccer Today

50/50 Friday: Should the MLS playoffs be revamped?

Every Friday, New England Soccer Today will tackle a pressing issue in the world of soccer. Each topic will be argued by a different writer each week, with guest writers periodically appearing to add some flavor to the mix.

This week, our writers debate the the following topic: “Should the current MLS playoff format be revamped?” Arguing in the affirmative is Sean Donahue, while Brian O’Connell presents the dissenting view.

YES. MLS needs to completely change their playoff system. The conference system has lost any remaining value. When every team plays a balanced schedule, there is no need to have anything but a single table.

Conferences had their use back when the league had fewer teams and played more matches against their local rivals. Now that teams play each other the same amount of games, the league should further conform to the rest of the world and go to a single table.

This year is the perfect example of the flaws in the current system. One could easily make the argument Los Angeles, Salt Lake, Dallas, and Seattle are the top four teams in the league and they could easily finish with the best records as well. Despite their records, however, only one of those teams will make the MLS Cup. Meanwhile, in the east San Jose or Colorado could easily overtake Columbus and New York to win the Eastern Conference crown, despite being in the Western Conference.

If the league were to go to a single table, not only would the teams with the best record be rewarded, but the Supporter’s Shield could gain more relevance. Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake could meet in the Cup final, instead of the conference final. In the current system, San Jose and Colorado, the 7th and 8th teams in the league have easier match-ups than Dallas and Seattle, the teams with the 4th and 5th best records respectively. What good is it eliminating the best teams early?

A simple single table with seeding based solely on records is the easy solution.

NO. I’m not going to lie: back in the day, when there were ten clubs and all but two qualified, it was pretty nutty. The MLS Playoffs were basically a reward to play mediocre until autumn arrived, and clubs were managed accordingly. In short – it provided for some really dull soccer. And by “dull,” I mean “tortuous.”

But today, we’ve got sixteen clubs. The majority of teams no longer qualify. Next year, with Portland and Vancouver entering the picture, a minority of clubs will qualify. The days of bad clubs battling it out for a trophy they don’t deserve are now in the past. The regular season’s more important. And we’re starting to see that especially this season, with a nice slew of three legitimate sides all of whom could reasonably be considered championship contenders.

Now, is the current conference shuffling of seeded teams a bit confusing? Absolutely. And I won’t deny that. A single table without conferences would probably be a lot easier to look at and say who’s going and who’s getting left behind. But – it does allow for some interesting match ups. We want interesting, don’t we? Right now, it’s possible, through the magic of the current seeding format, that real-hot Real Salt Lake could play sizzling Seattle in a two-leg semifinal matchup. Who doesn’t want to see that? I sure as heck do. I would pay to see that. That’s a series that has all the makings of an MLS classic. And only wacky-MLS wisdom could bring us this.

There’s a certain joy in it’s unpredictability. It’s not clear. It’s not easy to figure out. And yeah, it makes you wonder why the conferences haven’t already been dissolved. I hear the arguments, and almost all of them are valid. As a fan of the game, though, there’s a lovable quirkiness to it all. It’s like an episode of Big Bang Theory. And if, by chance, we do happen to see a Salt Lake-Seattle and Red Bulls-Rapids paired in the West and East, respectively, it’ll be sweet, unabashed playoff trickery at it’s finest. And I love it!

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