MLS 2012 playoff structure fails to reward regular season success


March 15, 2012 by Kyle Whitman

Playoffs that decide a league’s champions is a foreign concept to fans of most domestic soccer leagues. Usually, the winner is determined by which team accumulates the most points during a set number of regular season fixtures. This concept makes sense: Each team in a league plays all the other teams an equal number of times and the one that emerges with the best record wins the title. Seems fair enough.


In all American professional sports however, playoffs are used to determine the champions. The top teams from leagues’ regular seasons are pooled together and play a knockout style tournament, the winner of which is crowned league champion. Therefore, a club that finishes a regular season in 4th place has a chance to be crowned champion and the best team in the regular season often fails to win the title. In fact, during the most recent season, none of the playoff winners of America’s biggest three sports (gridiron football, basketball, and baseball) finished the regular season with their league’s best record. So while success in a regular season can be a predictor of playoff success, the two are not always correlated.

Since its inception in 1996, the United States’ Major League Soccer (MLS) has used a playoff format to decide the champion. The league awards the regular season winners the “Supporters’ Shield” but this is very much a secondary prize compared to the much more coveted MLS cup, given to the playoff winners. The MLS adopted the playoff system because they assumed that it was built into the psyche of the American sports fan. Without the excitement of postseason play, a regular American fan would quickly grow disinterested in the league. I’m not trying to support or refute the idea that consumers of sports in America need playoffs to remain interested, I simply wish to discuss how MLS’s playoff system renders regular season play far too unimportant and why it does a poor job of rewarding teams for consistency.

For those unfamiliar with MLS, I’ll briefly explain the basic league structure and this year’s playoff structure (the playoff structure maddeningly seems to change every season). MLS has 19 teams separated into two divisions based on geography, East and West. There are 10 teams in the East and 9 in the West. Each team in the league plays 34 games but all 19 teams do not share identical schedules (like most European leagues where each team simply plays every other team twice). The 5 teams with the best record in each of the respective divisions make the playoffs. Thus the playoffs have 10 teams in total, 5 from the West and 5 from the East.

My big issue with the playoff structure is the fact that teams are separated into two divisions with an equal number of teams going to the playoffs from each division. Under this system it’s quite possible, even likely, that a 5th place team from one division may have an inferior record than a 6th place team from the other division but still make the playoffs since 5 teams qualify from each division. This hardly seems fair. A fairer and much more intriguing structure would be to do away with the two divisions and simply have each of the 19 teams play one another twice during the season, once at home and once away (as in European domestic leagues). The top 8 teams would make the playoffs and be seeded according to their position in the table with the number 1 seed playing the number 8 seed in the first round, the 2 seed playing the 7 seed, etc. Under this system the 8 teams most deserving of making the postseason would do so since every team would be playing an identical schedule. It would add only two games to each teams’ fixture list (36 as opposed to 34) and extend the season by only a week (since playoffs would be reduced from 10 to 8 teams and therefore the first round of playoffs that currently exist would be unnecessary).

Another positive aspect of this system is that it would do a better job of rewarding those clubs with the very best records compared to the system in place this season. Under the current system, the playoffs are split according to division and only in the MLS Cup final do teams from separate divisions play one another. If we apply this year’s system to last season’s final league table, the LA Galaxy would take on the winner of FC Dallas v. Colorado Rapids who finished 4th and 5th in the West division respectively. However, FC Dallas finished with a better record than the first place team in the East division, Sporting Kansas City. So despite having by far the best record of any MLS team in the regular season the Galaxy would have to play the 4th best team in all of MLS in their opening playoff tie. By contrast, the East division’s top team Sporting KC, despite having just the 5th best record in the league, would get to play the winner of Columbus Crew v. New York Red Bulls who finished with the 9th and 10th best league records. Under the alternative system proposed above, the Galaxy would justifiably take on the team with the worst record that made the playoffs.

Under the current system all that really matters is that you do well enough in the regular season to make it to the playoffs but there is hardly an incentive for a truly excellent regular season campaign since it won’t necessarily pair you up in with the weakest team in the playoffs. Because the incentives aren’t strong enough to excel in the regular season, the current system makes regular season games in the beginning and middle of the season unimportant and boring. Also, once a team has a playoff spot clinched, there is little motivation to continue winning aside from psychological concerns that arise from going into playoffs on the back of consecutive losses.

I don’t wish to sound overly critical of the league. It’s important to mention the big strides forward MLS has made in terms of quality of play, number of teams, stadiums, and overall fan interest in the league. That the league has increased from 10 to 19 teams and is poised to overtake hockey as the 4th most popular spectator sport in America speaks volumes of the progress MLS has made in its 17 seasons of play. But, obvious improvements are still there to be made and the league needs to start with its playoff structure. Creating a consistent playoff structure that effectively rewards regular season success will go a long way in ensuring sustained popularity growth for MLS.

  • MLS

    All American sports are determined by playoffs. It really increases the excitement of the games. Every playoff game puts a team’s whole season on the line. A win and they go on. A lose and they go home.

    That said, the existence of playoffs does limit the importance of the regular season. It does in every sport, and it’s just the nature of the playoff structure. The best teams can rest players at the end of the season to prepare, and any every regular season games means much less than a playoff game.

    Having playoffs is a trade-off, but IMO it’s well worth it.

  • Steven

    While I agree with you that the current system needs a drastic improvement (especially trying to figure out what format they go with each year), knowing that next year a confirmed 20th team (New York #2) will enter the league (and probably bump Houston or Kansas City to the west), I’m not overly concerned with the apparently chaotic structure that this season is in.

    Last year’s 18 team system was much more balanced, as every team played each other twice, home and away. In addition, the playoff format was more balanced as the bottom qualifying teams were seeded regardless of conference (even though the winners of the conferences were still segregated. In a 20 team format, and without the hassle of the Olympics or World Cup falling smack-dab in the middle of the season, balance can be easily restored in 2013, as well as a much less complicated playoff (which is still somewhat necessary for America, even though it could be reduced to the top six teams, IMO. [Winners of each conference, while the next best four regardless of conference do a one game playoff to advance and play those conference winners #3 v. #6, and #4 v. #5, and the lowest seed that advances beyond that plays the Supporters Shield winner in a double-leg semi-final, while the higher seed winner plays #2. Then the winners of those play a single game on a neutral field for the MLS Cup.])

    • Steven

      I should clarify that my playoff format was just thought up on a whim, and what I would hope happens. I re-read the post and realized it sounded much like I was quoting the MLS.

  • Kyle Whitman

    First and foremost I appreciate the comments to the post and enjoy hearing your opinions. I guess I just fundamentally disagree with the assertion playoffs make things more exciting. In the absence of playoffs in European domestic leagues, the last ten weeks of the season become mini playoffs in themselves, with each game having vital importance on a team’s final standing (whether they are fighting for a the league title, spot in Europe, to avoid relegation). Every game in which the two Manchester clubs are involved from this point on is like a cup final. The two teams play each other in the third to last game of the season. If there was a playoff structure that game would carry little importance and both teams could coast into the end of the season.
    Prior to the Galaxy winning MLS Cup 2011, the two previous winners were Colorado in 2010 and Real Salt Lake in 2009. Colorado finished the 2010 season with a 12-8-10 record (W-L-D). Real Salt Lake finished the regular season in their title winning year with more losses than wins. They were 11-12-7. For me there is something very frustrating about teams that are that mediocre over the course of the season being crowned champions. I don’t find anything enjoying about a team being average for 34 games ultimately having their season defined by a good six game playoff run. I assume what frustrates me most about playoffs is what others find so alluring!

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