A Shorter MLS Season and a Case for Single-Elimination Playoffs

The MLS season is too long.

The Athletic reported last week that MLS is considering a major revamp to both its regular season and playoff schedules. The main goal of the change is to shorten the season, which currently lasts over nine months with playoffs included. By comparison, the USL season, including its postseason, was about six weeks shorter than the MLS season in 2018. The USL schedule started two weeks later and finished a month earlier, despite featuring the same number of regular-season matches per team.

How will they shorten it?

One way MLS will reportedly shorten the season is by adding more midweek games. MLS teams currently play a schedule including four-midweek games per season, per team. That would increase to six per season. That’s not a change for FC Cincinnati fans, as the USL had six-midweek regular season games in 2018.

MLS will also likely to introduce single-elimination playoffs, shortening the duration of the postseason by eliminating two-legged fixtures in the conference semifinals and conference finals. The combined changes will present the opportunity to conclude the playoffs and hold MLS Cup before the standard November FIFA international break. This season, that international break was planted right in the middle of the MLS playoffs, leading to several complaints (as in year’s past) about disrupting the momentum of the playoffs.

Benefits

There are a number of positives to whittling down the length of the MLS season. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is avoiding winter weather. MLS could finish the regular season in September and get the bulk of the playoffs done in October, which is much more likely to be a good weather month than November in cities like Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Chicago, and so on. An earlier finish reduces the prospect of a frigid MLS Cup. MLS held last year’s final on December 9th in Toronto on a day when the high temperature was 34 degrees. Everyone survived via the cunning use of toe-warmers, but crowning a champion a month earlier gives the participants a better shot at palatable weather.

The earlier finish also reduces the amount of time MLS contends with some very popular sports, like college football and the NFL. These clearly compete for eyeballs and ticket dollars as the MLS season draws to a close. Finally, there’s the reason stated previously. The playoffs would complete before the international break that disrupts the flow of the end-of-season tournament. All of that sounds pretty compelling, right?

Drawbacks

Midweek games typically draw smaller crowds due to the obvious contention with work and school schedules, so there is potentially a revenue hit to the teams there. However, they typically garner more TV eyeballs so maybe that reason, especially for just two games, isn’t a major factor.

Adding more midweek games to the calendar also means the potential for a congested mid-season schedule once the U.S. Open Cup begins. The Open Cup, of course, consists primarily of midweek games, but keep in mind MLS teams enter a round later than USL teams. Most FC Cincinnati fans will remember how fatigued the 2017 team became as they progressed further in the Open Cup. Luckily, US Soccer rescheduled the quarterfinal due to a torrential Miami storm. That saved FC Cincinnati from playing that key match without Berry, Delbridge, and Wiedeman, who were all unfit to play. The biggest change and the biggest potential drawback, however, is the modification of the postseason to a single-elimination format.

What is the Right Format for Soccer Playoffs, if Any?

When I first heard about the idea of single-elimination, I immediately thought “no way, I don’t like it”. I don’t like change and I follow many other soccer tournaments and leagues that use a two-legged home and away format.

When I challenged myself on it though, I found a different perspective and here’s where I landed. I’m not a huge fan of playoff systems for soccer in general. I’ve watched European soccer for a long time. Therefore, I am comfortable with a league that determines the champion based on which team performs the best over a grueling regular season. But, as long as MLS determines its champion by a playoff system, I don’t see the need to for two-legged fixtures, especially when they are only utilized for two of the rounds. A two-legged contest is arguably fairer. It reduces the likelihood that a single mistake or single brilliant moment from a lesser team can sink a superior opponent. But that also defeats the purpose of a playoff in my opinion.

Playoffs excel at producing dramatic do-or-die contests that reward the team in the best form at that time. They aren’t the fairest, and they don’t truly determine the best overall team. If MLS is going to continue to use a playoff system, I suggest we embrace that mentality or do away with the playoffs altogether (not likely to happen, but that’s a different article). What MLS has now is a hybrid of single-elimination and two-legged ties that is inconsistent in format and takes too long. Plus if you move to single-elimination, you reap all of the scheduling benefits discussed above.

I know some of my Orange & Blue Press colleagues disagree, but what do you say?

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