Leander Schaerlaeckens (took me about three cross-references to make sure I spelled it right) wrote an excellent piece for ESPN.com today about ‘fixing the MLS playoffs.’ As he points out, the MLS–since its inception–has had to wrestle with a major identity crisis: it’s the world’s game, Americanized. Or at least that’s what the MLS is hoping it will someday become.
The higher-ups at Major League Soccer must balance the well-mapped template of world football with the things that American sports fans want and expect. It’s been tricky. In the nearly two decades of MLS, they’ve achieved some things for both sides through widespread–and often weird–experimentation. To spin off Schaerlaeckens’ piece, here are three simple ways to balance the tradition of soccer and the restrictions of American sport.
1) Erase the conferences. Plain and simple: to succeed as an American sport you must have a playoff system. But the conference system adds nothing to the league, and now that there are even teams, it simply introduces weird variables (for example, because of the sloppy Wild Card system, a team can be a Conference Champion of a conference they aren’t a part of). Do away with the conferences, and you get one, clean league table like the rest of world football, that still leads directly to American postseason play.
2) Shrink the playoffs, in both size and duration. We’ll start with size: this year, 10 of the 16 teams in MLS make the playoffs. That’s more than 60 percent of the teams! This is unacceptable. The playoffs are supposed to be the best teams, playing the best football against each other to win the cup. Teams in the lower half of the table should not be in the mix. In terms of duration, the postseason doesn’t necessarily need to be clipped, but it should be carefully watched and shaped better around the November international break (as Schaerlaeckens points out). Among the biggest flaws of the NBA and NHL are the eye-gouging length of their playoff systems–the MLS is competing with these leagues for viewership now. Don’t make their mistakes.
3) Stick with two-leg ties. It took them a while to arrive at it, but MLS officials are finally on the money with the home-and-home series. This should be the system for all stages except the final. More than any other improvements, this idea straddles the American elimination bloodlust and the European tradition. You get a series of sorts, both teams get a chance at home field–but you don’t have the awkwardness of three or seven game series in soccer. At the end of the day, we have to be true to the game’s roots.