Is it time to change the MLS playoff format?

Posted by Alex Labidou

Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsFor teams like the New York Red Bulls, there's little reward to winning the MLS Supporters' Shield.

On Oct. 27, the New York Red Bulls celebrated arguably the greatest moment in the franchise's 18-year history by winning the Supporters' Shield.

It was the club's first major trophy and was a reward for being Major League Soccer's best regular-season team in 2013. For long-suffering fans of the franchise and star players like Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill, the relief was visible, and Red Bull Arena was as lively as it has been since its opening in 2010.

But those celebrations were short-lived.

Seven days later, the Red Bulls traveled to the Houston Dynamo's BBVA Compass Stadium to kick off their postseason against the Eastern Conference's No. 4 seed. The team would draw after taking a 2-0 lead and would lose 2-1 in extra time a few days later at home -- the same place that was filled with so much expectation just 10 days prior.

While some will point to the Red Bulls' ineptitude in the postseason as the main reason for their loss, they aren't the only Supporters' Shield winners to exit out of the postseason early. In fact, it's a pretty normal occurrence in MLS.

Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsThe 2011 Los Angeles Galaxy were the last Supporters' Shield winner to win the MLS Cup.

Since 2004, only two MLS Shield winners -- 2008's Columbus Crew and 2011's Los Angeles Galaxy -- have won the league championship. An even more troubling statistic, none of the other eight teams have made it to the league's Cup final.

This leads to a question that continues to be asked of MLS commissioner Don Garber: What's the point of the league's regular season?

In Europe, the league champions are decided by a regular-season table system that rewards the most consistent (and usually the wealthiest) team over the course of 34-plus matches. Usually the country's cup competitions are where you have unpredictable results (e.g., Wigan's 2013 FA Cup win). MLS strives for more parity than its counterparts in Europe.

The league has a low salary cap for each team that levels the playing field aside from its DP exemptions where major cities have an easier time attracting players. However, what is meant to help the league be competitive all over has actually hurt the quality of play.

"We are believers in playoffs, come hell and high water," said Garber in a news conference to kick off the 2013 season. "We believe that having a compelling postseason as our march to the championship is something that will drive more value to our target audiences. We believe with an unbalanced schedule and a big country, it is almost impossible in our view to have a single-table champion."

If you ask most coaches or players around the league behind closed doors what they think of the regular season, they'll tell you that players are managed to stay healthy for the postseason.

While some injuries are unavoidable, it isn't hard to imagine that most teams treat the regular season more cautiously than the playoffs, and fans suffer in the process. In a 34-game season, a single game doesn't have the significance that it would in a European league because a team can rally at various points of the season and secure a trip to the playoffs. Further adding to the issue is that the playoff format doesn't help the top-seeded teams unless they make it to the MLS Cup.

Case in point: 2012's MLS Cup winners, the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsChris Wondolowski and 2012 Supporters' Shield winner San Jose were bounced out of last year's playoffs in the conference semifinals.

The Galaxy were absolutely woeful during the first half of the regular season but ultimately turned things around and won the MLS Cup thanks to an dominant run in the final two months. The team essentially used the regular season to stay relatively healthy and in the final two or three months of the season turned on the switch to win the league's title. To add insult to injury, they took out 2012 Shield winner San Jose with ease on their playoff run.

This is a problem that MLS will continue to face unless it decides to do something about it. As the rumblings continue to grow that the league will eventually change its schedule to match Europe's, maybe it's time the league takes a look at its postseason as well.

Here are some suggestions:

Adopt a single-table format

Pros: It's the format that most fans of the European game would prefer (12 million viewers and counting in this year's NBC coverage of the EPL alone), and the stakes would definitely be raised during the season. A three-game losing streak could be disastrous for any team that has ambitions of winning the title. Plus, the U.S. Open Cup could take a higher significance, as it could provide fans with a single-elimination format for that trophy.

Cons: The single-table format isn't an easy sell for most American sports fans who are used to playoffs deciding the titles. For most leagues and college sports, the postseason is a lucrative time of the year, and Garber has insisted in the past that ticket and television revenue has been heightened during the MLS playoffs.

Give top seeds an extra home game

Pros: This is a format that conceivably gives home teams an edge over the lower-seeded teams. Following a home-away-home, three-legged format would force lower seeds to head to the higher seeds' home first, and the series would ultimately be decided on the higher seed's field.

Cons: The format would prolong an already lengthy season, and interest may wane. There is a less likely chance for upsets to happen, and injuries may pick up as well.

Alex Grimm/Getty ImagesA switch to a format similar to the Champions League may work well for MLS.

Adopt something similar to the UEFA Champions League format

Pros: Away goals would count, meaning that if the higher seed does have to travel for the first game of the series, a positive result would mean a lot more.

Cons: It wouldn't be a drastic change. With the talent gap between teams in MLS not being far apart, there might not be much of a difference from the current format.

Adopt the NFL's format

Pros: This might make the most sense for MLS if it decides to stick with the playoffs moving forward. In a single-elimination format, the higher-seeded teams would benefit from hosting games at their stadiums and not having to travel to the lower-seeded teams' stadiums. In that sense, if a lower-seed team does advance, it would feel much more like an upset than in the current format.

Cons: Lower-seeded teams don't have a chance to host games at home, and the playoffs become much shorter. Garber's main job as commissioner is to ensure that his owners are happy and have a chance to make the most money possible. Taking away a home game from a lower-seeded team prevents it from having a chance to bundle those games in ticket packages, which help a lot of teams in drawing attendance.

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