What's with this playoff format?

October, 28, 2011
10/28/11
9:30
PM PT

With the Galaxy in the MLS playoffs, we'll try to answer some of the pertinent questions as the postseason moves on.


Who can figure out what's behind Major League Soccer's playoff plan? Not many, perhaps, but there is a plan, and if it's a little skewed, it does make sense. Kind of.

Here's how MLS's playoffs work -- and why the format leaves plenty to be desired:

The top three teams in each conference are seeded into their conference's four-team bracket, and the next four teams in the overall standings -- regardless of conference -- head to the wild-card round, with the winners advancing to face the conference winners.

This is new. Only eight teams made the postseason before this season, but the more the merrier, the league figures, and it did lead to an incredible race for the final spots, so hat's off to them.

But the wild-card encounters are one-game affairs, and then the first-round matchups are home-and-home series -- two games, total goals. That's normal in soccer and guarantees everyone (except for those wild-card losers) a playoff home game.

But the teams that advance then play a single-game conference championship, followed by a single-game MLS Cup final. Huh?

In leagues that have playoffs or cup competitions, such as Europe's Champions League (or our CONCACAF Champions League), it's home-and-home in every round except, sometimes (such as in Europe's big event), the final. It's considered fairer over two-legs, but the Super Bowl-like excitement of a big final is hard to beat.

Then why not make the wild-card round or the conference championships two-legged affairs before a one-game MLS Cup? Weather.

It snowed in Denver the day before Thursday's wild-card game, which was played in 32-degree temperatures. Extending the season much deeper in November or into December doesn't make sense in the Rockies or the Northeast -- and everyone present for last year's final in Toronto froze his or her ... well, you get the picture.

The season can't start much earlier, either. It's still cold too many places in mid-March, when the league openers are played.

Of bigger concern is how, say, Philadelphia, which posted the league's eighth-best record, went straight into the main draw while FC Dallas, No. 4 in the overall standings, got stuck in a wild-card game (and lost). That's geography.

The league has been steadfast in separating the West and the East come playoff time (although teams can slip from one side to another -- it's all so complicated!) even though all 18 teams play the same schedule. Many fans want a single table without playoffs, like they do in the big European leagues, but it hasn't happened yet and might never happen.

And so the system we have could lead, next weekend, to the two best teams in MLS face off for a trophy. The Western Conference trophy. Only one of them would head to MLS Cup, where, at best, the league's No. 5 team would be waiting.

Previous questions

Are the Galaxy favorites?
If not the Galaxy, then who?
Who could be L.A.'s wild card?

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