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So let's talk about the Major League Soccer Playoffs, are they broke?

Well earlier today I posted a poll to see what 10 teams people think will end up in the MLS playoffs this year, and about 70 people have voted already today, but I wasn't the only one talking about the playoffs.

It seems that the online MLS world (at least on twitter and a good number blogs) were shaken to their cores this morning when Brian Straus made a post about the MLS Schedule issues called "Playoff and TV Uncertainty Overshadow MLS Schedule Announcement" and after he, like so many people, took MLS to task for not having their schedule out before Feb. 10th.  I don't think there are many fans or media members who disagree that the delays have simply been unacceptable, and reinforce the opinions of many that MLS is run like a minor league sport and not one trying to win the hearts and minds of sports fans across the United States and Canada.  

If you read my blog often you know that I take issue with a number of things that have been and are being done by MLS as an organization, and by "the Don" as its leader.  Perhaps nothing has upset me more in recent months than the announcement of the MLS playoffs expanding to 10 teams for 2011.  As Brain points out when that announcement was made we were told that the format of the playoffs would be coming in 30 days.  

Well that was before Thanksgiving, since then we have had Christmas, New Years, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, on Monday we will celebrate Valentines Day, and in 12 days we will celebrate Presidents Day.  I doubt that we will have the playoff format before either of the upcoming holidays, but we have to remember that it took until the very last minute last year before MLS and the MLSPU could come to agreement on a new CBA, and MLS still hasn't finalized a new TV deal with FSC or whoever would replace them.

more after the jump:

So Brian gives us this nugget in the middle of his thoughts:

The popularity of the World Cup proved there is an appetite in the U.S. for meaningful soccer. But networks are going to be reluctant to spend money and promotional resources on MLS as long as it struggles to deliver a compelling product that drives ratings.

That's where the playoff format (or lack thereof) comes in. The crushing anticlimax that was November's MLS Cup Final (the ratings were abysmal, down 44%, and the BMO Field stands half empty when Pablo Mastroeni lifted the trophy) was all the proof that should be needed that the league doesn't determine a champion in a manner that captivates fans.

Now this isn't his only point, and he makes several good ones but he fails to add any level of perspective to his comments, so I thought it might be good to do that before looking at the MLS playoff system in general.  So ratings were down 44%, yeah I can believe that it was two small market teams, and is being compared to the highest rated MLS Cup in history (2009's battle between the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake).  It also like most things that didn't involve the LA Galaxy or New York Red Bulls wasn't promoted very well by either MLS, SUM (the marketing arm of MLS) or ESPN.  In fact at the time of the MLS Cup I was a bit PO'ed that the regular season match between New York and LA had gotten much more attention by all parties involved, again I can almost understand this.  

There was no David Beckham, no Landon Donovan, no Rafa Marquez, or Thierry Henry, instead there were guys like Omar Cummings, David Ferreria, Brek Shea, and others who simply perform every week no matter how much attention is being paid to them.

He also fails to mention that Toronto fans had planned to walk out or not show up at all as a protest against being forced to buy tickets to MLS Cup if they wanted to buy 2011 season tickets for Toronto FC.  In 2009 the MLS Cup tickets were part of the Sounders season ticket package and not a required purchase to get season tickets and the crowd was huge, loud, and enjoyed the match.  However, as Kyle Beckerman lifted the trophy in 2009, the stands had emptied of most of the LA fans and a huge portion of the Seattle fans, why would they stay.  Did you see the crowd that stayed in Dallas to see the trophy ceremony at the SuperBowl, it was smaller than the crowd that watched the match, as Steeler fans and most others left on their way home.  

There is no doubt that the MLS playoffs don't always reward the best team, but no playoffs do.  Green Bay was a #6 seed, but they got hot at the right time. Playoffs are the great equalizer, and often the best team during the season don't win them, that happens in college sports like basketball with March Madness, the MLB playoffs where the Rangers had the worst record of American League playoff teams, and the winning Giants were the second best team in National League.  Playoffs are the great equalizer, they are the "second season" where the top teams from the regular season get another chance to prove their overall worth in a tournament setting.

Perhaps in no sport is that actually more true than Soccer, there is no trophy for the best regular season team in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL, in fact the only thing they get is often the ability to be the "home team" in the playoffs.  In MLS there is actually a trophy for the best team in the regular season, the Supporters' Shield, which is valued greatly by MLS teams.  So does this mean that the MLS version of the playoffs are wrong?  No, and almost every fan and media member probably has several ways to make them better, and back in October Brian did just that as he declared "The MLS Playoffs are Broke; Fanhouse has the fix", go ahead and take a few minutes and read it.  He makes some very valid points.

I disagree with him on the solution, for me it is very simple to fix the MLS playoffs.

  1. The top 8 teams make it into the playoffs.
  2. The parings will be 1vs8, 2vs7, 3v6, and 4v5
  3. Each series will be home and away, ties broken by total goals, then away goals, then extra time, and finally PK shootout.
  4. The higher ranked team will have the option of hosting first or second leg, including MLS Cup.
Now I know that "the Don" love having conferences and I have no idea why other than the ability to "crown" a champion during the playoffs, so I am going to allow him to keep that ability.  Teams 1,3,6, and 8 will compete for the Founders Trophy, which will honor all those who founder our league.  Teams 2,4,5, and 7 will compete for the Commissioners Trophy, which will honor all who have provided leadership for our league.

Doesn't that seem simple?  

I understand that this will require some scheduling adjustment as it has added 2 more playoff matches to the picture, but that impact is low enough to allow MLS to do the right thing in 2012 and whenever they add their 20th team.  Keep a balanced schedule, I don't mind a team like RSL in 2009 making the playoffs with a sub winning record as long as they played every team in the league as often as the teams they beat out of a playoff spot.  I do mind a team making the playoffs after facing a weaker schedule than other teams, even worse when they do it like the Seahwaks (sorry folks in Seattle) with a losing record and playing against weaker competition.  

There is also the issue of finding a television partner that will actually promote the league, the league itself finding out how to promote the playoffs and the stories involved.  I didn't see them do much to promote the top scoring duo in MLS of Casey and Cummings, I didn't see a lot talking about David Ferreira the leagues MVP, or the rise of both Colorado and FC Dallas neither of who had ever won MLS Cup before.  Instead there was just crying that New York and LA weren't there and that another MLS Cup would be won by a team without a high paid DP, or that having Colorado in the East was stupid.

Listen no matter what format you adopt there will always be people who complain, there will always be the possibility of a fluke team getting in (and winning), but playoffs are what makes American sports so great.  They in general reward the hard work of the regular season with a chance to compete for a championship.