How to make MLS playoffs count

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Everyone loves an underdog, but for the sake of Major League Soccer's credibility it is vital this weekend's round of conference semifinals does not end in a bloodbath of slain favorites.

With the second legs of the home-and-home schedule approaching, the realistic possibility that all four lower-ranked teams could advance should be enough to jolt MLS chiefs into seeking change.

Such flaws in the playoff system will surface unless at least two of the higher seeds – D.C. United, Chivas USA, New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo – can bounce back from shaky postseason starts and claim their place in the conference finals.

However, if the fifth- to eighth-place finishers in the regular season – New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas, Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizards – make it through, then that can only harm the perception of a league that is trying admirably hard to boost its image.

MLS and its commissioner Don Garber must take note. Having a format which allows eight of 13 teams to qualify for a shot at the title is all very well, but there must be some tangible advantage to reward those teams who excel for seven months rather than those that merely stumble into the postseason.

The current playoff system effectively renders a season of toil as virtually worthless. In the first round, teams with their act together since April really have nothing to show for it because everyone is pretty much equal in the postseason.

The only advantage D.C. United (the best team in North American soccer this year with a 16-7-7 record) had over its first-round opponent, the Chicago Fire (10-10-10), is that it was afforded the dubious distinction of being able to host the second leg at home. Down 1-0 going into Thursday's game, D.C. United finds itself 90 minutes away from being eliminated.

"There is no reward for busting your ass for half the year," said a high-ranking MLS club executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the commissioner loves the playoffs and no one is going to take him on over this."

Many soccer followers believe that a straight league table with the top finisher being crowned MLS champions would be the best option. But realistically in any American sports league, playoffs are a must and the shootout for the championship in October and November conceivably would drive interest and television ratings.

One solution would be to reduce the number of postseason qualifiers to no more than six with each conference champion being awarded a first-round bye. If baseball rewards only eight teams out of 30 with a playoff spot, NFL 12 out of 32 and even the NBA 16 out of 30, surely eight out of 13 MLS teams (62 percent) is too much.

Thirty regular-season games is an accurate enough barometer. If a team is not in the top six by that point, do they really deserve the chance to play for the championship? But the league wants eight to give extra hope to those teams struggling midway through a season and help to keep their campaigns alive. Fine.

The idea I would most like to see implemented is to make the first round of the playoffs a one-off match, to be staged at the home field of the team with the better regular-season record. But the league's thinking behind a two-legged first round was to guarantee any team that makes the postseason at least one home fixture to boost their interest and revenue. Again, fair enough.

So how about letting the top-seeded teams pick their opponent, with top points scorers D.C. United getting the first pick, second-seeded Chivas USA the next selection and so on? That way, the league would still get its eight teams, and every team would still get a home game. Television companies would have four weekends of action to broadcast, but more importantly, D.C. United would be able to avoid its nemesis, Chicago.

If MLS wants its public to care more about the product on any given summer Saturday, then it has to make those games mean something. When fans come out to watch, they have to believe that the game they are spending their money and time on is actually contributing something meaningful to the regular season. Otherwise, we are really left with just a bunch of exhibition games – a seven-month preseason leading up to one month that matters.

MLS must make changes to its playoff system to reward excellence and consistency, not just a hot streak in November.

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