I'm the first to admit that I'm often too hard on Major League Soccer. Some things, such as where and when games are featured on national television, are largely out of the hands of the individual clubs. One thing MLS has complete control of is the league's playoff system.
It's a system that's broken. It's one that does the league zero favors. It's one that cheapens the MLS Cup.
You do not have to be a MLS lifer or even a soccer fan to realize that ten out of 19 teams being given postseason berths is a joke. No serious professional sports organization should ever present over half of its teams with an opportunity to win a championship. The point of a regular season, one that included 34 match days over the 2013 MLS regular season, is that it is supposed to weed out the pretenders from the real contenders.
The NASL does it right. That league has one spring champion and one fall champion. Those two sides then meet up in the ridiculously-named Soccer Bowl to determine the best of the best. Neat, tidy, and conclusive.
MLS Cup, on the other hand, is as much a participation trophy as it is an award to the league's supposed best side. The concept is even more absurd when you compare it with other competitions. Had the Premier League utilized a similar playoff system to determine a champion this past spring, three clubs with nearly 30 fewer points than the league's top-four sides would have had a shot at winning it all.
Some MLS apologists will be quick to point out that the US top-flight is much more competitive than is the Premier League. True. If that's your argument with keeping the playoffs as they exist, why not expand the brackets? A 16-team tournament works as well as does one that includes ten, and it makes just about as much sense. The regular season means so little as it stands right now. Drop a few games and hand all of the halfway-decent clubs an opportunity to hoist a trophy.
What aggravates me the most about this is that the fix is so easy. Drop seeds four and five from both conferences, reseed teams based on conference champions and overall records, and give the top-two sides Byes. Then you'd get something like:
Team 3 hosts Team 6, and Team 4 hosts Team 5 on the first weekend, the Wild Card Round, of the playoffs.
Lowest remaining seed hosts Team 1 in midweek affair, and other remaining team hosts Team 2 in midweek game.
Teams 1 and 2 host second leg that following weekend.
Two remaining teams meet in MLS Cup Final on final weekend of the season.
This serves two purposes. It cuts down the amount of playoff teams to a much more respectable (roughly) 33 percent once New York City Football Club enter MLS in 2015, and it gives the teams that won their conferences a real and definite home-field advantage that they will have earned for having successful campaigns.
Make no mistake about two things. MLS has no interest in moving to a single table format that doesn't include a postseason, nor does the league want to decrease the amount of meaningful matches that are played in arenas and are shown on national TV. Thus, we are stuck with the current “orange slices for everybody!” format that rewards mediocrity.
Teams that thrive from the beginning of March through the end of October deserve better.