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A mixed bag: what to make of the new MLS playoff format.

MLS changed its playoff format again but this time it is a significant departure from previous versions. ASN's Brian Sciaretta is here with the pros and cons of the new version of the postseason. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
December 18, 2018
4:00 AM
ON MONDAY, MLS unveiled a new playoff format that is a drastic departure from previous years. The new format switches to single elimination and is more compact in that it will take place between the October and November FIFA international dates.

The regular season will wind up on October 6 and MLS Cup will take place on November 10. The number of teams in the playoffs will increase from 12 to 14 with seven teams in each conference qualifying for the postseason and the top teams in each conference receiving byes.

So is this a good or a bad thing?

The positives

First, this compact scheduling of having the playoffs take place over 27 days will avoid straddling the playoffs between international dates. In recent years, the November international break was a significant momentum killer. Now the excitement will be able to continue to build in an uninterrupted state.

This might not be as much of a positive, however, if the international breaks around this time consists of important games. If the United States national team has important World Cup qualifiers, for example, in October or November, the MLS playoffs might struggle to gain traction. In December, MLS Cup faces no other competition from the American soccer scene.

Another good thing about the new playoff format is that it vastly rewards strong regular season performances by giving higher-seeded teams the hosting rights to each game. Home playoff games are now coveted and hard to come by. Winning the regular season will give a team a meaningful bye. A team that just sneaks into the playoffs will have to four straight road games to win MLS Cup. That is a near impossible feat.

The negatives

One negative is that under the current structure, 58% of the teams in the league will make the playoffs in 2019. That is a bit offset in that teams sneaking into the playoffs are at a significant disadvantage in that they won’t host playoff games and will always face superior opposition.

The biggest negative, however, is the potential length of the offseason. The 2019 season will start on March 2 and the regular season will conclude on October 6.

For this new format to work, the 2020 season will have to be moved to mid-February, at the latest. For teams that don’t make the postseason, an offseason that goes from October 6 through March 2 is simply way too long.

The announcement of the new playoff format did not mention when the 2020 season would start although several reports have suggested that a mid-February start is in the plans. That would move preseason into January.

An earlier start would also benefit the MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League as they would no longer be playing big games in preseason form.

At one point, a mid-February start seemed impractical but with more mild-weather teams either having entered the league in recent years or planning to enter the league soon (Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, Austin, Nashville, LAFC) it seems like it could work by having those teams play more home games in the season’s first few weeks.

Having MLS Cup come earlier is better because it reduces the risk of having the league’s premier game played in brutal conditions. Sometimes that is unavoidable, but taking steps to increase the odds that the final is played in better weather is better for the league.

Overall, the new format is an improvement although it isn’t without flaws. Pushing the start of the season into mid-February is absolutely critical in 2020. With that, this is a format that could finally stick and prevent the need for changes, at least for a few years.

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