Needed Change in MLS Postseason Format Could Happen Soon
There are many things that the MLS needs to change if they want top become a top tier league by 2022. One of the first things that should be changed is the postseason format.
The current postseason structure is set up so that five clubs in each conference make the playoffs. In the first round, the fourth and fifth seeds play a single play-in game with the winner advancing to the conference semi-finals. There is no debate about this one match as it is held in the home venue of the fourth seed giving them home-field advantage.
The next two rounds are where the problems lie. Currently the conference semi-finals and finals are both two-legged ties, one match at each venue, with the higher aggregate score advancing to the next round. The first leg is hosted by the third-placed club as well as the play-in winner while the second leg is hosted by the top seeds.
In a perfect world, the order of these legs should be reversed with the top seeds hosting the first legs. It is very difficult to win on the road in any sport and the current setup allowed the lower clubs to build momentum in the first legs at home.
One example showing the flaw in the current system is the case of the 2011 Seattle Sounders FC. Seattle finished in second place in the Western Conference with 63 points and were matched up with Real Salt Lake finishing in third, 10 points behind Seattle. The first leg was held at Rio Tinto Stadium where RSL won 3-0 gaining all of the momentum going into the second leg where they fought off Seattle to win on a 3-2 aggregate.
In the 2012 playoffs, three of the six two-legged ties were won by the lower seed at home in the first leg. All three of them went onto win their series. Houston Dynamo did it twice to propel them into the MLS Cup Final where they eventually lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The MLS is discussing a minor tweak in the postseason scheduling which would allow the top seeds to decide whether they would like to host the first or second leg. While it isn’t perfect, it is a step in the right direction. The league has not set a timetable for when this decision will be made, but it could be implemented as early as this upcoming season.