Simplicity key to improving MLS playoffs

The rules governing the format for the Major League Soccer playoffs take up 656 words and an entire page on the league's website. If the "powers that be" simplified their formula into a more sensible model, the whole thing could be summed up neatly on the back of the business card.

MLS does plenty of things right, and its reputation internationally has never been better. But the playoffs are a clunking mess, full of unnecessary permutations and quirks, and could use a timely overhaul.

The first weekend of the postseason brought plenty of interest and entertainment, with a superb goal from the Los Angeles Galaxy's Edson Buddle, a strong performance by the star-studded New York Red Bulls and danger of elimination for the past two champions, Real Salt Lake and the Columbus Crew.

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But the league could buy itself some goodwill by seeing the beauty in simplicity and ironing out the wrinkles in its most important month of the year.

For starters, the over-complication of the seeding system should be the first thing to go. There is no need to continue to contrive an East-West element to the format, whereby teams are switched into a different conference bracket if the playoff qualifiers from each division are uneven.

Seeding the teams from No. 1 to no. 8 and having them play off in a traditional bracket (Nos. 1 v. 8, Nos. 2 v. 7, etc.), would be far more sensible and has no real downside.

Instead, this year brought a faintly ludicrous scenario in which the Colorado Rapids were actually rewarded for surrendering a two-goal lead to tie their final regular season game against Real Salt Lake. If they had won, they would have finished fourth in the West and been placed against the league-leading Galaxy in the opening round of the playoffs.


But the tie against Salt Lake pushed the Rapids down to fifth place in the Western Conference (six West teams and two East teams reached the playoffs), which meant they were switched to the East bracket – setting up an easier clash with a stuttering Columbus side.

Confused? No surprise there. Such a concept is enough to make a statistician break out in a cold sweat.

There is no suggestion that the Rapids deliberately threw away their lead to give themselves a more advantageous position in the postseason, but the fact remains that the existence of a scenario effectively punishing success is wrong – plain and simple.

Furthermore, the setup of the opening round of the playoffs delivers a slap in the face to the importance of the regular season by offering no real reward for the higher-finishing team.


Teams play a home-and-home series, with the higher seed being given a marginal edge by playing the second leg on its own field. The winners progress to the conference finals, a one-off game at the home field of the higher seed.

The theory behind the current idea is that every team which makes the playoffs should get a home game, but that is a wan to finance rather than a genuine reward based on merit.

Reversing the system by making the first round a one-off game and the conference finals home-and-home would be a major step in the right direction.

MLS is a smart league backed by some deep-pocketed and savvy business people. Its future remains bright, despite the release of some sketchy television rating reports last week.

The smartest move it could make for its postseason?

Keep it simple.