Since the league's inception, Major League Soccer has been trying to find the right playoff format, right meaning one that gave some meaning to the regular season while creating increased fan interest during the post-season. The latest iteration came yesterday, when the MLS Board of Governors approved four major changes in the league playoff format:
- Top five teams in each conference, no wild-card slots.
- Seeds #4 and #5 in each conference in a one-match play-in.
- Conference finals are now a two-leg series.
- MLS Cup final hosted by team with higher regular-season point total.
To me the biggest change to the playoff format is the end of the neutral-site MLS Cup Final. I always felt that designating the MLS Cup as a neutral-site event was a huge mistake as it removed the opportunity to create a compelling made-for-TV event and ensure full attendance by home town supporters. I believe I understand the rationale of Doug Logan at the time in that MLS Cup is a showpiece event on par with the Super Bowl, except for the fact that MLS was not, and is not, the NFL. It was one of several errors of the Logan era.
That said, having a neutral-site MLS Cup Final makes a lot of logistics easier. It is much easier to plan travel for the event when you know exactly when and where it will be. End-of-season events like the MLS Supporters' Summit are some of the major events that are planned around the MLS Cup, as well as corporate hospitality events. Perhaps the way to work around this is to have a MLS awards show and supporters' events in one city a week or two after the Final, which is easier to attend but would involve more travel for finalists' supporters.
As for the rest of the playoff changes, I think the switch of the conference finals to a two-leg format makes sense and is an indication that MLS teams and fans have a greater understanding of how the format works. Once you view it as a mini-league, the format no longer appears so foreign. And despite higher-seed teams grumbling about not hosting the first game, the result data show that teams hosting the second leg (i.e. higher seed teams) are 3-2 favorites for winning the series. The second game also guarantees a home match for the lower seed which means a guaranteed gate for both sides in the playoffs. MLS still won't embrace the away goals rule or even "sporting advantage", which in the end increases the probability of a series being decided by penalty kicks, which I thought everyone hated.
I do wish that the league would just do away with conferences, have playoffs between the top eight and have two-leg playoffs up to and including the MLS Cup Final. Or even drop playoffs, which haven't been all that popular if you look at attendance figures. But I know neither scenario will happen -- MLS is a North American sports league, after all -- so I will applaud MLS' move toward a playoff system that looks more familiar to observers in the rest of the world.