Posted January 20, 2014

MLS contemplating playoff format tweak: Give higher seed choice of home leg

Brian Straus, Houston Dynamo, MLS, MLS Playoffs, New York Red Bulls
Red Bulls-Dynamo

A proposed rule change would allow the higher seed in MLS playoffs choose which leg it hosts. The New York Red Bulls’ 2013 fate perhaps could have been changed under said change. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Major League Soccer could be close to finalizing a tweak to its playoff format that will offer additional reward, albeit slight, to clubs finishing higher in the regular season standings. SI.com understands that MLS is working on giving the higher-seeded team in the two-game conference semifinals and finals the option of hosting either the first or second leg.

“Ultimately, it’ll get passed,” a source said of the new rule. “I would think it’ll be finalized before the start of the season.”

Another source expressed a bit more caution, saying that a “majority” favors the change but that “by no means was there overwhelming consensus.”

The league’s competition committee and board of governors would have to sign off on the rule change before it takes affect.

Since MLS dropped the best-of-three playoff format following the 2002 season, the higher seed has traveled for the opening leg of each home-and-home series. Club and league officials believed that hosting the second game offered an advantage, especially because it ensured the team with the better regular season record would contest extra time or penalty kicks before a home crowd.

But a decade’s sample size suggests that playing the second leg at home doesn’t offer a significant boost. Clubs hosting the decider have won 26 of 48 home-and-home series, or just more than 54 percent. On 10 occasions, the second match has gone past 90 minutes. The home team advanced six times.

An expanded playoff format that has featured a knockout round and two-leg conference finals since 2012, along with the league’s 34-game regular season, Thanksgiving (in the U.S), the non-neutral site MLS Cup final and FIFA’s November international window, have made scheduling increasingly difficult. Commissioner Don Garber used the “square peg into a round hole” metaphor last week to describe the problem.

If enacted, the new wrinkle would allow a higher-seeded club to prioritize scheduling (and perhaps sales) over the minimal competitive advantage associated with hosting the second leg, if it so chooses.

Last fall’s Eastern Conference semifinal is a prime example of a series that might have played out differently if the higher seed had some flexibility. It’s likely that the New York Red Bulls would have preferred to force the Houston Dynamo to play on the road just three days after defeating Montreal in the knockout round. Instead, Houston stayed in Texas and tied top-seeded New York, 2-2, in the Sunday afternoon opener. The Supporters’ Shield winners then hosted the decider on a Wednesday night, which might have impacted attendance, and fell in extra time.

VIDEO: Red Bulls GM de Bontin says pieces are in place to build on ’13 success

The league has no plans to tinker further with the 10-team, four-round postseason format. But it is looking hard at scheduling, with an eye toward avoiding the problems that plagued the playoffs last fall. Playing 12 games in the first 12 days was exhausting, and then the two-week gap before and after the conference final deciders robbed the postseason of its momentum.

MLS currently is examining a few options that might solve some of those issues without compressing the regular season, which would extend an already-lengthy winter break for the clubs that fail to qualify for the playoffs. Among those possibilities are:

1 – Break with tradition and schedule playoff games over Thanksgiving weekend.

2 – Reduce the layoff between the conference finals and MLS Cup final to one week from two. The league is confident the host team won’t need more than a few days to sell out its stadium.

3 – Play through the FIFA date. Last fall’s World Cup qualifying playoffs made scheduling MLS games the weekend of Nov. 16-17 impossible. That won’t be an issue next year, although the L.A. Galaxy might bristle at the thought of losing Robbie Keane to a Euro ’16 qualifier.

4 – Push the MLS Cup final back further, perhaps all the way to the weekend before Christmas.

There’s a definite understanding at MLS HQ that the league’s most important games deserve a legitimate showcase and a more reasonable schedule, and club owners are willing to be flexible in an effort to make that happen. Meanwhile, progress on the new playoff hosting rule represents an increasing appreciation for the grind of the regular season. Starting this year, the road to MLS Cup will be a bit more forgiving.

9 comments
IanuaDitis
IanuaDitis

Meh, I'm not sure why they can't just apply the away goals tiebreaker.  that would have sent NY through after regulation in that tie.  It seems to me that its from there that the real advantage to playing the away leg first derives.

RickPotts
RickPotts

They shouldnT change a thing.  The only thing that un-did the Red Bulls was........the Red Bulls!

LateNite504FC
LateNite504FC

I like the proposed group stage format for the east and west playoffs.  (Higher seeded teams get home field advantage.)  Maybe a 2 leg semifinal in each conference for the top two finishers, or go straight to a Cup final for the top teams in each group.


The change they are planning to make is not a big deal for me. I would at least like to see the away goal rule in play for the two leg series. Right now, there are too many boring matches with teams just aiming to get into extra periods.

DanHagan
DanHagan

Most problems would be solved with single elimination.

1. Regular season seeding would matter with home field advantage

2. 3 weekends, then 2 week break for media hype

3. No change to regular season

4. MLS Cup beginning of December

DenzelEslinger
DenzelEslinger

So we really want to play into the 3rd week of December, perhaps the MLS is simply clueless to how poor the conditions were the first weekend of December to play a soccer match were.  It was painful to watch it on TV as players clearly couldn't get their footing on the frozen pitch.

How about this MLS, get over your damn fear of midweek matches and schedule 4 midweek home matches and 4 midweek road matches for every team and you will clear up at least 3 weeks of your season.


Drop the whole wildcard concept of your playoffs and just let the top 4 teams in, and while I know you are desperate to milk your customers for every dime you can get by making the playoffs longer and getting a home match for each team, if your not going to do that in the final, then stop doing it.  Give the home team the advantage and go back to each playoff round being one match. 


With those two things your season is now done before Thanksgiving, and nobody will likely have to play on a frozen surface.  Yeah you give up a couple of matches, so you drop a few paydays and your TV people get mad that they have a few less matches to broadcast but your get control of your season back, perhaps enough that you can figure out how to get back to some type of balanced schedule were every team faces every other team once at home and once on the road.  You say you want your regular season to matter more, then prove it.

daveenglish1
daveenglish1

@LateNite504FCI really like the group stage format but why screw with a semi-final match after that?  I would say go straight to the championship game using the group winners in order to incentivize getting points quickly--otherwise teams will "slow play" their matches to jockey for the #2 spot in each group--an acceptable dynamic for World Cup due to the quality of teams and highest of stakes involved, but not for MLS.

stancollins
stancollins

@DanHagan I agree with you, but the way the league looks at it is that it violates the Lamar Hunt Principle: hosting playoff games helps build franchises and fan bases.  That belief is why they do it the way that they do.

M20
M20

@DenzelEslinger  More midweek matches is a terrible idea. They are attendance killers, and that hurts the TV product too. In addition, compressing the schedule is a terrible idea for the Champions League teams. No idea what's wrong with two legged ties except for the Final either - most cup competitions work this way. These knee jerk responses to one freak occurrence of weather that cold in Kansas City don't make much sense.

mikebx21
mikebx21

Yea I guess these so called "experts" who say this crap have seen the ratings of the rsl portland playoff game? Its unbelievable to me how a league that would have an AMAZING title race due to there being hardly any difference between the leagues teams...best record last year was 17w and 9L right? LOL. Soccer is already a game that involves a bit of luck on and individual game to game basis so throw in all these playoff games and I feel like my IQ is going to go down if i bother to watch this crapshoot competition. Im not anti-american. I love America. Im not a euro snob, I just am a purist of football and believe me, this league would be exciting even at the current skill level. Every game would be a pressure cooker!