The postseason playoff is probably the most Americanized thing in all of sports. After a couple months of glorified group play, league titles are decided by just a couple of games or series. It’s something that’s decidedly American. Most, if not all, of the European domestic football (soccer) leagues don’t have a playoff to decide titles, even if that means that the championship is decided three or four matches before the season’s end.
So it’s easy to see why MLS gets such a bad rap from the “proper” footballing community for it’s postseason format. But as much as those folks want to ridicule the league’s playoffs, it certainly provides quite the entertainment for supporters and neutrals alike no matter what teams are involved. And that is what makes it worth everything that comes with a playoff.
Now before I get going, I do have to give a disclosure. There’s probably a good chance that I’m not writing this specific piece if FC Dallas loses to Seattle, but they didn’t and my overall point would still stand anyway.
The biggest factor in favor of MLS’s exciting postseason is its unpredictability. Even in the regular season it’s hard to figure out who is going to win from match-to-match. For example, FC Dallas posted four winning streaks of three or more matches while totaling a losing streak of three matches and a six-match winless streak. The LA Galaxy looked unstoppable in August, but finished out their season with a 5-2 loss to Portland, a 2-1 loss to Portland and got bounced by Seattle before the playoffs really got started.
In the postseason, that only gets amplified. The teams facing off against each other are much more closely packed talent-wise and there’s not that much to separate any of them, especially from the conference semifinals and onward. Honestly, going into the conference semifinal round this year, you could flip a coin in any of the four match ups and make a convincing argument for any team advancing, and that’s the same for the conference finals beginning Sunday.
The other benefit the MLS has in the postseason is the format. The league has the best of both worlds with single-game knockout rounds for the wild card round and MLS Cup and the two-leg series for the middle two rounds. The single-match rounds are incredibly intense because teams have to score and they have to score early to put the pressure on the opposition, which leads to end-to-end action and great drama.
The two-leg series essentially become one 180 minute game and you really have to screw up the first 90 minutes to be out of it going into the second match. All four of the conference semifinal games were technically up in the air going into the final logs of the series (D.C. United may or may not have really been in their series with the New York Red Bulls). And I would expect the same for the conference finals.
Of course, playoffs are a bad way to determine a true champion in any sport. It benefits the hottest team rather than the overall best or most consistent team. You’d have a hard time arguing that Chelsea was not the best team in the Premiere League last season. And most of MLB’s recent champions (save the Royals) haven’t necessarily been the best teams in the regular season.
But the MLS’s postseason format provides an incredible amount of entertainment for supporters and neutrals. And for a league that’s still looking to win over the general public in the U.S., that’s what it’s going to take to grow the league. And besides, how would we ever get dramatic moments like this?