A friend of mine, who is a casual sports fan and drive-by soccer follower, asked the other day who won MLS Cup this year.
No one yet, I replied.
He said he assumed the season was over because he had not stumbled upon any televised matches or seen much in the news lately.
And therein lies the problem for MLS: Beyond 5th Avenue headquarters, where every day is rainbows and unicorns, the sports world has moved on this fall. Even in the rhythm of the regular season, the league lacks appeal outside its local markets — just look at the anemic national TV ratings. An illogical playoff schedule, with a condensed start and interminable stops, has further marginalized MLS.
The playoffs began Oct. 30, jamming 12 matches into 12 days. After forgettable first-round games, the conference semis were compelling and the first legs of the conference finals tried to hold our attention. There was a rhythm to it — excessively condensed, but a rhythm nonetheless. And then … cue the crickets.
Two weeks between the two ends of the conference finals and another two-week wait for MLS Cup. In all, during what should be the height of interest, the league will hold three matches across four weeks. Only NFL video reviews take longer.
Playoffs are the pinnacle of every U.S. sports season. They are about grasping fans’ curiosity and not letting go. They are about anticipation and drama between games, vitriol between supporters and storylines in the mainstream media. They are about sustained buzz. With weird scheduling, MLS had faint hope of building a broad national audience in the postseason. The big news this week was not the playoffs, but the approval of Orlando as a 2015 expansion club.
Soccer traditionalists will argue against playoffs altogether: Why do we have to be different than the rest of the world? First, playoffs are the American way. Second, without promotion and relegation (a contentious topic for another day), playoffs, when properly scheduled, provide end-of-year tension that would otherwise be largely absent, aside from a possible first-place race. Third, MLS is not the only soccer league with playoffs. Mexico, for instance, sends the top eight finishers to postseason and England uses four-team playoffs to determine the third promotion from one tier to the next.
Face it: The playoffs are here to stay. And this year, they have provided some fine moments. Houston went on the road to upset New York, the Supporters’ Shield winner; Real Salt Lake ousted two-time defending champion Los Angeles; Kansas City struck late against New England; and Portland and Seattle tangled in a delicious Cascadia Cup bonus edition.
Soon after the semifinals ended, the clubs dove right into the conference finals. Saddled by exhaustion, travel and injuries, Kansas City and Houston wasted 90 minutes of our time. RSL, the freshest and liveliest of the remaining sides, crunched Portland in the first leg.
This weekend’s return matches are compelling: SKC in its sterling, raucous arena against hardened Houston on Saturday night and Portland needing to overcome a two-goal deficit at the Rose City cauldron Sunday night. It has taken so long to reach this point, though, one has to wonder how many fans outside the local markets are paying attention.
The reason for the delay? For a change, MLS is honoring a FIFA fixture window. It’s the right approach, but why now? For years, the league has blatantly — and wrongly — ignored the international dates, citing regular season scheduling demands. In September, during the most critical period of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying, the league scheduled 12 matches immediately before, during and immediately after the FIFA period. For MLS players on international duty, the current FIFA window is for inconsequential friendlies.
We’ll cut the league a break on the two-week lull between the conference finales and MLS Cup. Playing the championship at a home venue on six days’ notice is a logistical nightmare for the host club, for organizers and for traveling supporters. No complaints there.
Each leg of the conference finals, however, should have been played on consecutive weekends. Last winter, had MLS bothered to consult the FIFA calendar — which is set years in advance — the current fixture window could have served as the off-week before MLS Cup.
Scheduling is an annual challenge for MLS — and not just for the playoffs. Unlike other U.S. sports leagues, MLS must take into account U.S. Open Cup dates, stadium conflicts, FIFA windows, the CONCACAF Champions League and tournaments such as the Gold Cup. It ain’t easy. But if a mom-and-pop duo can navigate Major League Baseball’s complex and convoluted formula to arrange 162 games per ballclub, with interleague play, travel dates and odd number of games between teams, surely MLS can create a proper schedule that doesn’t lose its audience.
What is the playoff solution?
X out the FIFA dates on the calendar. Respect them. Treat them like religious holidays.
Dump the fourth-place vs. fifth-place playoff matches. They’re excessive.
Cut the conference semifinals and finals to one-game encounters, with the higher seed hosting. If one game is good enough to decide MLS Cup (not to mention the UEFA Champions League and World Cup), one is enough for the secondary stages of the MLS playoffs. It would create true home-field advantage, as opposed to the two-leg series that fails to properly reward the higher seed. To acknowledge regular season performance (and ease the pain of a possible early playoff exit for a conference favorite), reward the Supporters’ Shield runner-up with a CONCACAF Champions League berth. (As it stands, and as it should continue, the Supporters’ Shield winner gains an automatic CCL slot.)
Ban MLS Cup in December. With several northern/midwestern/mountain teams in the league, MLS is playing with fire (and ice). A wintry day in Kansas City or Salt Lake City next month will drive home that point.
On a side note, forbid in-season participation in contrived tournaments, thus freeing additional dates for regular season matches. (Really, in the middle of the campaign, do clubs need to play in the made-for-TV, made-for-profit International Champions Cup?)
There are no easy solutions here. But a better regular season schedule — including the possibility of cutting the number of matches — and a simpler, streamlined postseason will enhance the MLS experience.
Because right now, the public has tuned out these drawn-out playoffs.