In Defense of the MLS Playoffs

Playoff drama at Red Bull Arena (photo: soccer.si.com)

Playoff drama at Red Bull Arena (photo: soccer.si.com)

OTF contributor T.J. Zaremba is here to tell the Editor he’s wrong…

Scott Fenwick, the Grand Puba of On The Fire, will dislike this piece. His OTF Radio cohort, Brian Smith, won’t be fond of it either. Last week, in the second segment of their podcast, both engaged in an anti-MLS Playoffs tirade.

Admittedly, there are quite a few folks who share Scott’s and Brian’s disdain for the league’s post-season knockout cup tournament. Indeed, a large, vocal group of soccer fans in this country believes the MLS Playoffs should be summarily done away with. 

They are all wrong.

Granted, the playoffs need to change, but do a greater service than disservice to the league. MLS is better off keeping them.

Playoffs are truly an American sports concept, and Major League Soccer is an American soccer league. Looking around the American sports landscape, it’s obvious more playoff games are preferred. After all, they mean more money and notoriety for leagues.

Major League Baseball added in the play-in game, the National Football League holds discussions about expanding its playoffs, college football created a playoff system, and at least half the teams in the NBA and NHL reach the postseason. Playoffs keep fans’ hopes alive and keep them interested longer. Postseason tournaments increase attendance and television viewership, which again, makes more money for the stakeholders.

In Major League Soccer’s case, I’ll use Chicago Fire’s 2013 season to back up my argument. If there were no playoffs, the Fire’s last meaningful league game may have been its spanking at the hands of Chivas USA in late March. Going a step further, its last meaningful game overall may have been the U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss to DC United in early August. However, thanks to the playoffs’ existence, the Men in Red still had a chance to win a trophy in late October.

Like Major League Soccer, domestic Europe leagues have playoff systems too: the Champions League and the Europa League. Now, while these tournaments aren’t playoffs in the American sense, they essentially function the same way. The Champions League trophy is the ultimate prize, while winning the Europa League is either on par or better than a domestic title. 

For example, if there was nothing more to play for in Europe than just domestic league titles, Barclays Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga would have ceased being interesting competitions many weeks before their respective conclusions. Instead, because of the two knockout tournaments, the drama shifted from who was winning the league to which clubs were making it in Europe.

Conversely, MLS’s (and Liga MX’s) problem lies in the fact that its continental club tournament, the CONCACAF Champions League, is neither prestigious nor profitable and likely never will be. In North America, the league title means much more than the continental one. A playoff system to win the former keeps the casual fan interested longer.

Folks who dislike playoffs argue that using a single table with a balanced schedule makes regular season games matter more and thus increases interest.

I disagree.

If this is the case, why does an Arsenal-Manchester United game attract more interest than an Arsenal-Crystal Palace game? Games are never of equal value, even if they are of equal value in the standings. Winning, star players, and rivalries cultivates fan interest, puts butts in the seats, and attracts eyes to screens.

Granted, American-style playoffs are rarely, if ever, a thing of beauty. Our post-season tournaments are wars of attrition. They test entire teams, no matter their quality. They’re a grind.

At times though, heroes emerge during the playoffs who aren’t top stars, but unsung hard workers. This is part of the attraction, the narrative.

Chris Schuler: RSL's unlikely hero (photo: mlssoccer.com)

Chris Schuler: RSL’s unlikely playoff hero (photo: mlssoccer.com)

Despite complaints about schedule congestion and fatigue, MLS should continue to hold both its conference semifinal and conference final legs during consecutive weeks, followed by a two-week break before the cup final.

Why? Because the excitement of close results that occur during a short time frame builds playoff drama. Look no further than the conference semifinal drama of the second legs a few weeks ago – especially New York-Houston and RSL-Los Angeles.

Instead of saying it’s a bad system, folks should regard this season’s MLS Playoffs as the blueprint for how the league can move forward.

To be sure, MLS has done a terrible job of marketing its playoffs as ‘must-see’ television. Moreover, some games are not easy to find for the casual fan.

This can be resolved by setting the playoff schedule within the same time frame each year. The league, in concert with its broadcast partners, should plan and promote the tournament accordingly. Games should never be limited to online streams.

I like the idea of marketing the playoffs as a “November to Remember,” with the final always occurring on the first Saturday in December. This would allow better scheduling cooperation with gridiron teams and reduce the chances their lines would appear on playoff pitches.

Better yet, MLS should fall in line with the FIFA calendar and switch to a fall-spring season. This switch would help avoid conflicts with the international calendar, the football world at-large, and scheduling with other tenants of several venues. In this case, the MLS Playoffs could be called the “Magic of May,” with the conference finals finishing the weekend before Memorial Day and the MLS Cup final held during the first weekend in June.

At the end of the day, Major League Soccer is a better league with playoffs and not without. While many die-hard soccer fans say playoffs are a meaningless, colossal waste, deep down, most said fans love post-season drama. Thankfully, MLS has time and room to improve its current system and take it from its current state of mediocrity to greatness.

A postseason championship tournament is the easiest and most effective way for Major League Soccer to attract the casual sports fan’s attention and grow its fan base. If planned and marketed correctly, the MLS playoffs will help the league surmount its last major hurdle: poor television ratings.

After all, TV money is the pot at the end of the rainbow. Tapping it will make America’s top professional soccer league bigger, better, and stronger.

T.J. Zaremba was BarnBurner #110 and 1998 second-half season ticket holder in Section 8 of pre-mothership Soldier Field. After over a decade on walkabout, with a handful of guest appearances, he returned in 2011 and has been a regular (when his commitment to Uncle Sam allows it) at Toyota Park with his wife and the Hamster. Follow T.J. @TJZaremba

2 thoughts on “In Defense of the MLS Playoffs

  1. I’ve been in the middle of this debate but am now leaning towards the pro-playoffs side. Very good points. It is the American way of going about sports and it does make things more interesting. People love seeing their team have one last push when it comes to the playoffs. It’s true that it’s not a perfect system but it CAN BE fixed.

  2. Pingback: Soccer Potpourri | OverLapping RunOverLapping Run

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