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MLS Does Not Need to Tinker with the Playoffs
The best of three quarterfinal round for the 2023 playoffs is odd and doesn't make sense after the recent success of the single elimination bracket.
After a very long wait, Major League Soccer fans finally were told how the 2023 MLS Playoffs would work later on this year, and the announcement has led to a lot of interesting conversations.
The league has put forth a best-of-three series in the Conference “quarterfinals”, a series as far as I can tell has not been used since the 2002 format when the league was just ten teams.
Now, twenty years ago, MLS trying to emulate other North American leagues with a playoff series is perfectly understandable. The league was new and tinkering and trying things out was the norm (RIP the 35 yard penalty shootout).
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This best-of-three concept however in 2023 doesn’t make any sense, other than the new Apple TV deal with more playoff games can’t be a bad thing. But, why add playoff games to the quarterfinal round? If you wanted to add potentially two extra games, why not make the Conference Semis and Finals two legs?
Also, Apple already secured a ton of extra games with the Leauges Cup, so I don’t see how an extra 1 seed vs 8 seed matchup or two is really all that enticing compared to additional late round playoff matchups.
The Revolution have been at the forefront of the conversation in their last two playoff appearances in 2020 and 2021. The latter being a first match exit against eventual champions New York City FC after not playing for three weeks was their reward for winning the Supporter’s Shield. This was remedied in 2022 with the playoffs up against the winter World Cup and no international break was needed to play around. The 2022 playoffs were mostly chalk as well, with the Union and LAFC as #1 seeds advancing to MLS Cup.
The Revs also dispatched the 2020 Shield winners Philadelphia Union as an eighth seed in the “first round” after a play-in round win over Montreal. So logically, MLS could be trying to protect their top seeds from unfair upsets in the first round. But isn’t playing the winner of an 8/9 seed midweek game at home on full rest enough of an advantage? Do we need to protect top seeds beyond playing a tired mid-table team at home?
I don’t see how this best of three system is beneficial to anyone. I don’t think the extra games help Apple with their new broadcasting deal because it’s not high-profile games/matchups and I don’t think “protecting” the top seeds from upsets is necessary. It just feels like extra games for the sake of extra cash on top of the midseason Leagues Cup. At least adding an aggregate two-leg series in the Conference Semi/Final gives you more games involving top teams and time to promote said matches during the international break.
MLS does not need 16 teams involved in a best-of-three playoff round. It doesn’t highlight potential top matchups and I think it will stifle upsets which is the exact reason why you have the playoffs in the first place. The unique North American playoff style that we use to determine a champion is still a tremendous test for all involved - surviving a 34-game regular season and then a four game sprint for a trophy. Forcing teams to play potentially an extra two games seems counter-productive and diminishes a regular season that already is overshadowed by the playoffs.
Unlike the NBA and NHL where every round is a seven-game series, MLS adding more teams to a single elimination bracket is perfectly fine to me. The solution here was simple, add the 8/9 game midweek before sending that play-in winner to play at the top seed. Nothing else needed to be changed or extra games added.
A team getting hot late in the year and making a run in the playoffs or a good team that struggled through injuries to a middling playoff seed but hit their stride at full health in the postseason are great and expected stories. There’s no reason to filter out or protect higher seeds so long as you have a fair and consistent playoff competition.
I don’t necessarily view the Revs 2020 playoff run as a successful season, but it was a likely sign of positive things to come and, yea verily that success came to pass with the Shield winning season. Likewise, there was no shame in losing to a good NYC team two years ago though it was widely noted the three-week layoff for the Revs was unnecessary and perhaps counter productive to the balance of the playoffs. The FIFA international window in November isn’t going anywhere and will always have to be scheduled around most likely, hopefully going forward in a way that doesn’t “reward” a team with a month-long layoff.
Sometimes the playoffs are exactly what we want them to be - an imperfect method and delightfully chaotic mess that we use to award to major trophy. I don’t think the playoffs need to be fixed, the single elimination bracket has been well received the last few years and I think it is a nice balance of a sprint finish against the marathon that is the regular season.
MLS is still growing as a league, changes and adjustments and growth are expected. Just like steps backwards, which is what I think this best of three idea is. It should be scrapped by next year in favor of other, better, more competitively sound and balanced ideas. A higher salary cap, expanded roster and other pro-player moves should be higher priorities for the league instead of tinkering with the playoff format needlessly.
The league has always been, what’s the word to use here… inventive with how it has grown over years, but as convoluted as those ideas were, they usually were never outright bad.
Which is exactly what this best of three series is - nonsense that should have been left in the 2000s from a fledgling league still trying to find its way and promote itself. Not a major league trying to cash in twice in the same year with rosters largely stuck in the 2000s.