et’s face it; the MLS playoff system this season has been less than ideal. When the Eastern conference final is contested between two teams nominally from the west, you know something has gone wrong somewhere. In other sports, the playoff procedure has been determined for quite some time and everybody – fans, teams, journalists – know what each team has to do to make the post-season. This isn’t something that MLS has done in recent years; with the near constant expansion of the league, the competition format has needed to change regularly to accommodate the new teams.

It has long been known the league want to bring the total number of teams up to 20; with Vancouver and Portland joining in 2011, followed by Montreal in 2012, this would mean one remaining berth to be filled, potentially as early as 2013. It has long been mooted that this last spot would be taken by a second New York team (or first, if you’re being pedantic); something that was reiterated by Don Garber in a recent interview.

A lot of U.S. soccer fans have expressed a desire to see the league go to a ‘single table’ format, perhaps to bring it more in line with European soccer leagues. The idea of separate conferences is sometimes anathema, especially when the aforementioned East meets West issue arises. That said, I think it has merit when placed against the backdrop of U.S. sports history, and it’s pretty much certain the league won’t want to do away with playoffs, simply because in an already extremely competitive sports market, giving people the game that ‘decides it all’ is the way only to go.

In proper journalistic endeavors, it’s considered important not to let your own opinions color what you write. Fortunately (at least, until ESPN or SI come a-knocking) that’s not something I need to worry about. So I can quite easily propose a system without worrying about my journalistic integrity. (All I have to worry about is snarky comments below, and anyway – I love those.) So, here they are: my rules for a coherent competition format! (insert drumroll if/where appropriate).

1. No Single Table – two distinct conferences: Yeah, I said it. We’re not in Europe. And yes, I’m actually from Europe (well, the U.K., which is like Europe’s weird uncle; you know, the one who comes to family gatherings, drinks too much, and fondles the dog) so you might not expect this opinion from me. Let me explain my reasons for this. I’ve said this before, but soccer culture in Europe has had 100 years plus to get used to a single table, and although television plays a huge part of the business of soccer now, when the leagues started, television coverage was not an issue. This is partly the reason there are playoffs now. If you have a single table, then the similarities to more traditional formats would make the playoffs irrelevant. Simply put; the United States in not Europe. We should stop trying to make soccer in the US just like that across the Atlantic.

2. Unbalanced Schedule: Okay, calm down. Go with me on this. If you’re having a balanced schedule (here, I mean, one in which every team plays every other team home and away, like in 2010) then splitting the league into conferences makes no sense. Having a single table, in which it is obvious which team is the ‘best’, then renders the play-offs nothing more than icing on a cake. And as anybody who has eaten a lot of cake can attest, too much icing is bad thing and makes you vomit all over your grandmother’s new couch. I would suggest a schedule of playing each team in your own division home-and-home, with playing teams from the other conference just once. This would have the added bonus of making ‘glamor’ ties – particularly LA vs NY – that much rarer, which I think would enhance their appeal.

In a 20 team league, this would mean that there would be 27 games in a regular season. With that kind of schedule, you could put the league on hold when there are big international tournaments being held, so that the league does not resort to having skeleton teams turn out because the best players have gone to the World Cup. In non-WC years, this ‘break’ could be used to accommodate the money-spinning friendlies with European clubs that MLS seems insistent upon having each year. In the interest of fairness though, it is likely the owners would not be too impressed with this, because – naturally enough – fewer games = less cash.

3. Seeded Play-offs: Assuming that you go with numbers 1 and 2, and keep a play-off system, it would make sense to reward those teams that have performed better over the course of the regular season. I envisage following something along the lines of the NFL play-offs, with the ‘best’ teams getting an extra week to rest and getting home fixtures.

So, here’s how I see it going down. 5 teams make the play-offs in each Conference, based on points accrued. Teams are ranked according to where they finished in their respective conferences. So, the team that finishes top is ranked #1, team that finishes second is ranked #2, and…well, I’m sure you can work out the rest. The #1 and #2 teams are given a bye into the next round of the playoffs.

The remaining 3 playoff teams compete in a single elimination round robin tournament over the course of a few days. #3 plays both games at home, #4 plays one home, one away, and team #5 plays both away.
#5 @ #3, #5 @ #4, #4 @ #3 (this schedule also gives the max amount of rest time to the best-ranked team of the three).
These games are 90 minutes. If a game is level after 90 minutes, hey, it’s shoot-out time. Everybody loves penalties! You get an extra half point for winning on penalties. Once these games have been completed, the top 2 teams on points progress to the next round.

The ‘winner’ of the round-robin stage plays at #2, whilst the runner up plays at #1. 90 minute matches, 30 minutes extra time (if necessary) and then penalties. In the conference final, highest ranking team plays at home, the winner of each of these games play the MLS Cup Final at a neutral ground. This set up means that there will be 13 play-off games (compared with 11 this season, more TV coverage), and would also avoid the silly situation we have had in this post-season.

I’m not presenting this ‘solution’ as the definitive way to move forward – I seriously doubt Don Garber has been waiting for my take anyway – but if you work on the assumption that play-offs in MLS will continue, then you need to make the playoffs watchable, you need to make them exciting, and you preferably want to give a slight advantage to team that have qualified best out of the conferences. You also want to be able to crown a Western or Eastern champion who is actually from the correct conference.

There are some questions that would need to be asked and answered about this particular format (starting with “How much cash are MLS going to pay me to license it?”), but I do think that now is a good time to discuss the play-off format in future years. MLS needs to decide upon a coherent and consistent competition format, one which not only maximized revenue and exposure, but eliminates the kind of embarrassment that does not enhance the league’s reputation anywhere.

You think I’m a loser with silly ideas? Tell us your suggestions. Have at it!