Is MLS’ new best-of-three playoff format working?

When Major League Soccer announced a massive overhaul to its playoff format in February, the general response seemed to be something along the lines of: OK, whatever.

For a league in which tinkering with everything that can be tinkered with has always been central to its identity, the new structure also just represented the status quo: In MLS, always expect change.

That’s why there is no reason to believe this year’s format — which we’ll get to — needs to be committed to memory. It will be around for a year, maybe a few, then something else will come along and the conversation about the merits of the competitive format will be reset.

Rinse, repeat.

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Part of MLS’ constant postseason evolution can be attributed to expansion. As the league has grown, it has always made sense to adapt. An ideal playoff format for a 12-team league isn’t what’s best for 20, and what’s best for 20 isn’t what’s best for the current 29. Call it common sense.

There’s also the need to navigate the international windows, which is a significant hurdle that other American professional sports leagues don’t have to deal with. For example, with nine-day breaks in September (4-12), October (9-17) and November (13-21) this year, there are no possible scenarios in which the MLS Cup playoffs wouldn’t be impacted on some level. Especially in an era when more and more MLS players also feature for their national teams. At the World Cup, MLS ranked No. 6 globally in rostered players (36), behind only Europe’s top five leagues, and roughly 70 countries have capped players currently in MLS.

Jamming a single-elimination tournament between international breaks feels forced and anti-climactic. Breaking up the playoffs on both sides of an international break hurts momentum. The reality here is that there is not a perfect solution.

Last year, seven teams from each conference made the single-game elimination playoffs in which the top seed from each conference received a first-round bye.

It worked. The two best teams from the regular season met in MLS Cup, and LAFC‘s win against the Philadelphia Union might be the greatest game in league history.

If the league kept the same format, no one would have batted an eye. It did not.

Here are a few basics on how this year’s format works:

  • Nine teams from each conference qualified for the postseason, with the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds meeting in what amounted to a play-in game before the first round.

  • The first round is a best-of-three format in which the better-seeded team hosts the first and would-be third games. In this round, if matches are tied at full-time, they go straight to penalties.

  • This all takes place between the October and November international breaks.

  • After the November break, when the field is down to four in each conference, it switches to single-game elimination for the conference semifinals, conference finals and MLS Cup. The better seed hosts in each, with the more traditional 30 minutes of extra time followed by penalties, if needed, in the case of draws.

As acceptable as a single-game elimination format is, there are some significant flaws for MLS that appear to be at the root of these changes.

If the league wants its MLS Cup champion to be considered that season’s best team, it’s hard to make the case that single-game elimination is the best way to determine that. It’s more acceptable in the NFL, where teams can play only so many games, and in NCAA basketball, where there are more than 300 teams to whittle down, but it is an inarguable fact that upsets are more likely to happen in a one-game round than in two-game aggregate models or best-of series. The more times teams play, the higher the likelihood the better team will emerge.

What’s probably more important for the league, though, is that a single-game elimination model isn’t particularly engaging for the bulk of its fans. MLS is very much a league in which a lot of its fans are passionate about their team but don’t pay attention beyond that. If the league wants to keep more people invested in what should be the most important time of the season for an extended period, ditching single elimination makes sense.

There is an obvious financial component to adding more guaranteed games, but let’s not pretend that all things that will result in more money are inherently bad.

Do teams benefit financially from the guaranteed first-round home game? Of course. But this is something that benefits fans, too — especially the ones who support the less successful clubs and don’t get many opportunities to attend high-stakes games. The Vancouver Whitecaps broke their MLS attendance record Sunday against LAFC with 30,204 fans at BC Place. There’s no better indicator of demand.

With Philadelphia’s 1-0 win over the New England Revolution on Wednesday night, there have been 18 postseason games. That’s enough of a sample size to develop a more worthwhile opinion than anything that came before the playoffs started. The most important question to ask is, has it been entertaining? And the answer, at least from this vantage point, is yes.

The best-of-three series is unorthodox in the sport, but for those who aren’t concerned with accepting European traditions as the be-all and end-all of what is right and true for the beautiful game, it has been enjoyable. Teams that fall behind in Game 1 are incentivized to attack instead of sitting deep and limiting damage, which is often the case in two-legged aggregate models. Every game has felt like there are real stakes, which is also not always the case over two legs.

Going to penalties after 90 minutes would have made sense if there were only three days or so between games, but there isn’t much justification for not using extra time — like in the later rounds — when teams have lengthy breaks between the first and second games. (New England and Philadelphia opened the first round on Oct. 28 and then didn’t play again until this Wednesday, Nov. 8). As exciting as penalties are, games are best decided in open play.

If there was any concern about teams playing for penalties, the results have shown that hasn’t happened. Scoring (3.0 goals per game) is just about on par with last year’s playoffs (3.15) and entered Wednesday’s game as the fourth-highest-scoring postseason in league history.

It’s been mostly encouraging, but it’s also far too early to tie a bow on a full evaluation of this format. There is real potential for burnout. The season came on the heels of the winter World Cup, started in February and took the extended summer Leagues Cup break. The Concacaf Champions League and U.S. Open Cup also came and went. The playoffs will inevitably lose steam during the international window, and a champion will be crowned.

Some people will hate it. Some people will love it. For everyone else, it will be fine.

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