Decision Day's Success
On October 25th, Major League Soccer orchestrated possibly their single-most exciting game day in its history. Fan responses were strong in praise of the action-packed, minute-by-minute changes in fortune during both the 5 PM and 7 PM broadcasts. Feelings about 60% of a league's teams qualifying for playoffs aside, expanding the playoff pool from ten to twelve teams undoubtedly contributed to the relevance of the match-ups. In this way, the MLS Competition Committee realized the vision they set at the beginning of the year for the clubs and their fans.
Another component to Decision Day's drama was that it was the perfect segue into the much-maligned and frequently-tweaked MLS Playoffs. It was a rousing fireworks display that kicked off what should be the grand finale to the regular season grind. But MLS Playoffs, at least for me, have traditionally been more like running around the backyard with sparklers than fireworks. They're fun to start, but pretty quickly it becomes kinda boring and anti-climactic. And it smells weird.
I've seen many interesting articles on how to "fix" MLS' playoff structure, with a standout being Grant Wahl and Brian Straus' 2011 proposal of World Cup-style groups (Give that one a re-read). While I'd enjoy that format, I'm not sure it's logistically plausible. For the past two and a half years I've been convinced of what I would recommend to MLS' Competition Committee: Nothing but knockouts.
Benefits of All Knockout Round Playoffs in MLS
Three of the four playoff games over the last two days were thrilling, must-see TV for American soccer fans. My favorite was probably the other game, because LOLTFC. But while I'm excited to see my Crew SC take the field on Sunday, I'd rather not mess with the two-leg system.
Here are three issues that an all knockout playoff system would address:
1. The Folly of the Aggregate Series
2. Dilution of Regular Season
3. Very Cold or Snowy Soccer
If you've read this far, you probably know how an aggregate series works in soccer. I'll cut to my editorial chase - It is an unnatural way to conduct soccer.
- There is no such thing as an 180 minute soccer game in the 34-game regular season. Why would you construct a new competition format for what's supposed to be the most important games your league plays?
- Fans who watch the first leg get no immediate resolution as to what they've seen. It's like paying full price to go to the first half of a movie in a theater, then going home and watching the rest on Netflix. (If you decide to watch).
- This method risks rendering the second leg meaningless. Imagine that Crew SC's recent 5-0 demolition of DC United was a leg 1 match. While I'm a superfan and would attend no matter what, why would a casual fan be interested in attending or watching a coronation in leg 2?
- This method allows for, and I really hate this one, a team to lose a game and then immediately be crowned as the aggregate winner. I realize I'm supposed to see these separate 90 minute competitions as one big 180-minute game, but this just comes across to me as contrary to the ethos of sport.
- Beginning with last year, this also introduced inclusion of the away goal rule, which is another example of a rule that never applies during the regular season. Assigning more value to a goal because of less fans in the crowd? Are we talking about feelings here?
Dilution of the Regular Season
MLS' 34-game regular season took on greater importance in 2012 when it was decreed that MLS Cup would be hosted by whichever conference champion had the better record. Eliminating the two-leg aggregate series would further tilt the favor towards teams that performed better in the regular season, as it would then determine hosts throughout the playoffs. 6th seed in your division? Fine. You get to fight for your playoff lives on the road. Tops in the conference? Congratulations! Here's home field advantage.
Increasing the importance of the regular season is in my mind the most powerful aspect of an all-knockout playoff format, because you're not only affecting playoff teams or playoff games. Now, all 340 games within the season are more critical.
For those that argue that all-knockout rounds randomize the championship, I'd point to teams' performances at home vs on the road in MLS. If "Home SC" was a club, it would have won the Supporters' Shield with 62 points (1.83 PPG). "Away FC" would have ended with just 33 points, ahead of only the Bridgeview Fire. These results emphasize the importance of home field advantage in the playoffs, which would be entirely driven by regular season performance.
Soccer Championships in Snow
MLS has been rolling the dice when it comes to extending its playoffs into December. The 2013 MLS Cup was played in frigid conditions and it was fugly. But without getting too philosophical about "pretty" soccer vs, say, what Kansas City plays, there's the real risk each year that the marquee game in the MLS schedule could be bumped due to bad weather. As little as five inches of snow mixed with icy road conditions could create a level one emergency that shuts down roads and would postpone the game. Knockout playoffs will tighten the schedule and reduce this risk.
This year, for instance, conference semi-final matches could be played on 11/1 and conference finals on 11/8. Pausing for the international break, MLS would have a two-week window to hype and sell MLS Cup on 11/22. That would also give fans of *both* teams ample time to scrape together some dough and make lifelong memories attending the match. And hopefully when those fans showed up, they wouldn't freeze their fannies off.
So as you watch your "leg one" matchups Sunday, remember the thrill of the last two days of knockout games. Compare and contrast. Take stock. Imagine what the game might feel like as a fan and as a player if (exclusively) decided who was going to move on. Then wonder why, if the two-legged series is preferred for "fairness' " sake, MLS Cup isn't treated the same way? Or why the World Cup uses all-knockout format once you get past the group stage to decide the best team on the planet?
MLS has shown that they're not afraid to tinker with format in the past. I'm hoping that there's yet another change coming for 2016.