Major League Soccer needs to reform its playoff format. The league has continued to expand and change, but has not updated how the winner of the MLS Cup is chosen.
Currently, there are 22 teams divided into two conferences with 11 teams each. Of those 11 teams, 6 make the playoffs. So over half of the teams in the league make the playoffs.
Once in the playoffs, the first round of each conference has two play-in matches with the fourth-place teams vs. the fifth-place teams and the third-place teams vs. sixth-place teams, with the two higher seeds hosting. The lowest-seeded winner advances to play the conference's top seed, and the next-lowest plays the second seed in the Conference Semifinals. This format is most similar to that of the National Football League.
I believe that the current format promotes mediocrity, as teams who struggle throughout the year can a win a few games towards the end of the season and have the same shot as a team that has dominated all season.
Playoffs are a foreign concept in soccer leagues across the world. Typically, leagues are formatted in a overall table system where the team that has accumulated the most points (three for a win, one for a tie, zero for a loss) is the champion. In MLS, the team with the most points in the regular season wins the Supporters Shield, a distinction that does not hold the same value as an MLS Cup.
A league with something like playoffs is the Liga MX, Mexico’s top division. There they have what is called the “liguilla.” In Mexico, eight of the 18 teams are seeded by points and then face off in two-legged ties, with the winner on aggregate score advancing.
The only major American sport similar to MLS in terms of percentage of the overall league making the playoffs is the National Basketball Association, where 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs, but that league has playoff formatting issues of its own.
In Major League Baseball, 10 of 30 teams make it, but two of those teams are quickly knocked out in the one-game wild card round. The National Football League has a similarly difficult road to the playoffs. In the NFL, the four division winners from each conference make it along with two wild cards for a total of 12 teams out of 30. The formatting of MLS is very similar to that of the NFL, but MLS league has eight less teams.
I am not the man to decide what exactly MLS should do. I am fine with having playoffs, although there are people calling for a overall table like the rest of the world. I do not think MLS should move to a table until they are ready for relegation and promotion, which is a whole separate debate. In my opinion it is OK that the top team throughout the regular season is not automatically the champion.
All I ask for is some more competition for playoff spots.
Antonio Salazar is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.