- Jason Davis

Many of my blogger brethren, as well as paid professionals whose day job is covering this game and our league took to their keyboard to spew fire yesterday. Great gobs of it exploded in the direction of Major League Soccer and its representative figureheads.

All because the playoff format came out. There aren't too many on board with the changes.

The most obvious problem for most is the number of teams involved. More than half of 18-team league will make the post-season in 2011, the highest percentage of any top-level professional sports league in America. MLB qualifies less than 30%, the NFL less than 40%, and the NHL and NBA 53% each. Major League Soccer, at least for one year, will have 56% percent of its teams in the playoffs. Makes that whole 34-game regular season seem much less important. Rewards mediocrity. Cheapens the MLS Cup title.

Of course, we all knew the expansion to ten teams was coming, per the statements of Don Garber at the MLS Cup Final in November, but any chance to belch out a blast of league-singing heat will be taken. Increasing the playoff field is a fairly egregious error in judgement on the surface. The only logical explanation, that MLS wants to keep as many club fan bases engaged as possible into the playoff season, is flawed thinking fairly typical of men who can't seem to find the pulse of the soccer public to save their lives.

Keep in mind that the decision to go to ten teams probably didn't come from Don Garber, perceived decider of all things MLS. Even if he was in favor of the playoff expansion, the ultimate responsibility for making the change lies with the Board of Directors (hereafter known as "the owners"). The owners are the ones with a vested interest in seeing the field expand, because doing so provides a safety net for clubs that either can't or won't make the effort to reach the top of the table. Cheap have a better chance to get by. Smaller budget clubs have a chance.

It would take a leap of faith for the owners to suck it up and pull the net. Less teams in the playoffs, and eight was a number most of us could live with, would increase the value of the regular season, provide for more weighty late-season matches with teams above the mediocrity line playing for their lives, and give the MLS Cup a real sense of legitimacy. Other issues, like geographical incongruities, are much less important than the perceived efficacy of the competition. Make the title somewhat difficult for under-performing teams to win (and reward to top regular teams in some identifiable manner), and most people will forgive the idiosyncrasies of the process.

Some will complain. There's always a segment of soccer fans that will complain, no matter what the league does. The rub is in determining which whining on which points is best ignored. Geographically-inspired moaning? Who cares. Complaints that the playoff field is being watered down again after moving in the right direction for several years? Those are the complaints to listen to.

In the end though, this is a minor tweak, not a deathblow to American soccer as we know it. Fans will still watch, still buy tickets, and still hope to see their club lifting the MLS Cup trophy come November, and we have no reason to believe they'll do so in smaller numbers than they did before. Unfortunately for all of us already invested in the league and desperate to see a more exclusive playoff system that rewards regular season success (or no playoff system at all), the owners have a Get Out of Jail Free card. TV ratings are bad, a problem that is the league's most pressing business issue. They might argue enlarging the playoff field will give more people reason to watch, potentially increasing the television audience. We can't prove otherwise, nor will smaller playoff field advocates be able to point to the ratings at the end of the year as evidence the move was the wrong one. There's practically no room for the numbers to fall.

But the owners, or Garber, or whomever you choose to blame, do seem to be talking out of both sides of their mouths by claiming to target the existing market of American soccer fans - people who would understand a much smaller playoff field or no playoffs at all - while pandering to general American sports fans who might scurry away should their local club not make the post-season.

For those of already here, agonizing over the expanded playoff bracket is a pre-season distraction, a way to pass the time until the real games start. It's hard to argue that the change is good for the league, but it's equally hard to argue - using actual fact rather than speculation based on some hazy "sense" of what the American soccer public wants - that it's bad for the league either. Besides, there's reason to believe/hope that by 2013, when most of us expect Team 20 to enter the league, we'll be back to a flat 50% making the playoffs.

Until then, flame on, I guess.

Below you'll find the details of the format, in case you haven't seen them, directly from the league's press release. I'll close by saying that if it had to be 10 teams, there are worse way for it to be done. I have no real issues with how the format is laid out, other than the odd switch between single games (Wildcard Round, Conference Finals, MLS Cup Final) and two-legged series (Conference Semis). That's just weird, and I haven't seen a good explanation for it.


Ten clubs will qualify for the 2011 MLS Cup Playoffs:

The top three finishers in each conference, based on regular season points (six automatic berths)
The next best four clubs based on regular season points, irrespective of conference (four wild cards)
The four wild cards will play single elimination games against each other, with higher seeds hosting (1 vs. 4; 2 vs. 3). These play-in games are part of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
After the two play-in games conclude, the lowest remaining seed will face the Supporters’ Shield winner in the Conference Semifinals; the other will face the No. 1 seed in the opposite conference from the Supporters’ Shield winner.

The four Conference Semifinals will be decided by two-game aggregate series, with each club hosting one game. The two Conference Championships will be single games hosted by the higher seed. MLS Cup will again be a single championship match hosted at a predetermined site to be announced at a later date.

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