As an American soccer enthusiast, it is refreshing to see Major League Soccer in such a stable position. Soccer's premier system in the United States is nearly two decades old and has expanded to 19 teams in 18 cities with the 20th, NYC FC, coming in 2015. MLS is responsible for producing several American stars on the international level such as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Still, there is one major flaw with the current structure of MLS—the playoff system.
Make MLS On Par With Other Leagues
Playoffs are the backbone of the American sporting body. The Super Bowl is considered the largest sporting event in America; the commercial benefits exemplify America's capitalistic environment. College Football has been criticized for NOT having a playoff system, leading to a change in policy where four teams will contest for the national championship. The mystique of March Madness is the "David versus Goliath" scenario which allows the underdogs one chance to upend their superior opponents.
American soccer has a different feel though. The United States does not possess the highest level of talent in regards to soccer, unlike basketball, baseball, American football, etc. The Barclays Premier League is the most watched "football" league on the planet and even the American audience follows the BPL much closer than MLS. While Major League Soccer may be miles away from reaching the level of popularity like its European brethren, it can learn a lesson from the format of these leagues.
All top flight leagues in Europe (and most of the world) use the table format to determine its champion. The concept is simple, each team plays every team twice (once home, once away). The champion, of course, is determined by points at the end of the season. Adopting to this format would put the MLS on similar grounds with the more popular leagues across the globe, adding legitimacy to the game in the States.
Regular Season Hindered
The main critique of the playoff system in soccer is that it essentially renders the regular season useless. Yes, a team must finish at a certain position to qualify for the playoffs; 10 out of 19 teams will qualify for the MLS Playoffs—an absurdly high amount. The MLS regular season is essentially identical to those of leagues across the globe, minus the playoffs, of course. This adds more incentive to drop the playoff system altogether, because the regular season would not change.
Naturally, the playoffs allow a team to get on a hot streak and win the title based on a handful of matches—not exactly a "best team wins" kind of scenario. The Supporters Shield is a title given to the team with the most points at the end of the MLS regular season. This team would theoretically be the league champion if governed by international football standards.
However, in America, the Supporters Shield winners bare no importance. Since 2003, only 2 Supporters Shield winners have gone on to win MLS Cup (Columbus—2008, LA Galaxy—2011). If MLS does not change their format, they are rewarding teams with mediocre regular seasons by allowing them opportunities to win the title in one or two matches.
TV Ratings Low
MLS Commissioner Don Garber believes the playoff hunt provides the "excitement" that American audiences are accustomed to watching. Well, according to the American TV ratings, this is far from the truth. MLS Cup 2012 between LA Galaxy and Houston scored a 0.7 overnight rating—basically 700,000 viewers. This match is remembered by many as David Beckham's final match with the Galaxy, however, it is likely that most of America was watching the SEC Championship game between Alabama and Georgia that afternoon. In 1996, the inaugural MLS Cup even scored a 1.4 overnight rating. Clearly, there is a negative trend in regards to viewership in America for Major League Soccer's showcase event. If Garber believes this playoff format is exciting, I would not want him planning my bachelor party.
Worst Possible Timing
I previously hinted at this when I mentioned the Alabama/Georgia game, but it must be reiterated: the MLS Cup—and the entire playoffs for that matter—occur at arguably the worst possible time of the American sports calender. The bulk of the playoffs occur during the middle of the NFL season and end of the college football season. Because most MLS playoff matches are scheduled for weekends, the chance of common fans tuning in to watch is slim to none.
MLS Cup 2013 is expected to draw slightly higher approval because it is scheduled a week later than most seasons (around December 7-8). League offices suggest this move will not interfere with college football dates, though it is still nearing playoff season in the NFL. If MLS wanted a portion of the sports calendar all to themselves, they should consider making the MLS playoffs in the summer months (July-August) and begin the regular season in the winter. Of course, removing the playoff format altogether would be justifiable since the title would not be decided on one given date.
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