Major League Soccer: Should MLS Go To An NFL-Style Divisional Playoff System?

Big ChilContributor IIDecember 7, 2010

HARRISON, NJ - AUGUST 03:  MLS Commisioner Don Garber speaks to the media during a press conference to introduce Rafa Marquez to the New York Red Bulls on August 3, 2010 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Is Major League Soccer's Conference system weakening the league's playoffs?  Should it be scrapped in favor of an NFL-style playoff system in which divisional games & rivalries are weighted more? 

The Colorado Rapids, the overall No. 7 seed ended up winning the MLS Cup, after having defeated the No. 5 Columbus Crew in the quarterfinals, then the No. 8 San Jose Earthquakes in the semi-finals, before dispatching No. 4 FC Dallas 2-1 in the championship.

These were the final standings in the MLS table at season's end:

1. Los Angeles Galaxy (59 pts.)  Western Conference

2. Real Salt Lake         (56 pts.)  Western Conference

3. New York Red Bulls (51 pts.)  Eastern Conference

4. FC Dallas                (50 pts.)  Western Conference

5. Columbus Crew        (50 pts.)  Eastern Conference

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6. Seattle Sounders      (48 pts.)  Western Conference

7. Colorado Rapids        (46 pts.)  Western Conference

8. San Jose Earthquakes (46 pts.) Western Conference

Major League Soccer's playoff seeding system works as follows:

There are two playoff brackets of four teams, one bracket per conference.  The brackets are seeded 1-4 within the conference.  However, if you look above, you'll note that there are six teams from the Western Conference in the top eight and only two from the Eastern Conference.  In this case, what MLS does is fill out the Eastern Conference bracket with the lowest ranked teams from the Western Conference, with all Eastern Conference teams being ranked higher than those Western Conference teams.  

The top two teams in each Conference are guaranteed playoff spots, so yes, it is possible for a Conference winner to finish outside the top 8 in the MLS table and still be seeded No. 1 in its playoff bracket.  

Because of the MLS Conference system, the playoff brackets were as follows:

Eastern Conference Playoff Bracket

3. New York Red Bulls vs. 8. San Jose Earthquakes

5. Columbus Crew vs. 7. Colorado Rapids

Western Conference Playoff Bracket

1. Los Angeles Galaxy vs. 6. Seattle Sounders

2. Real Salt Lake vs. 4. FC Dallas

As you can see, three out of the top four seeds are in the Western Conference bracket, while the eventual champion, No. 7 Colorado Rapids, faced no better than the number three seed in the Eastern Conference.

MLS is expanding to 18 teams in 2011, with the additions of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, and will play a balanced home and away schedule against each team for a total of 34 games per team.

As it is, the current MLS system of conferences, guaranteeing each conference two playoff slots, can weaken the playoff system as shown above when there's a dominant conference in any given period, see the AFL or the NBA West for the past 15 years.  

We know that MLS plans to expand to 20 teams, with the addition of the Montreal Impact in 2012, and an unnamed, probably New York based team in 2013.  

Suppose MLS were to shift to an NFL-style, unbalanced schedule with divisions?

Home and away balance in soccer is critical.  Witness the MLS Cup Champion Colorado Rapids' 8-2-5 record at home, but pedestrian 4-6-5 record on the road.  

Sports like basketball, hockey, and baseball, which, like soccer, can play more games than the NFL, have a hybrid balanced home and away schedule, as well as a divisional playoff system.  

Suppose MLS were to try four five-team divisions in two conferences, with each divisional winner being guaranteed a playoff spot, and then two wild card teams per conference, creating an eight team playoff?

Based on the NFL system, where each team plays every team in its own division home and away, then every team in a rotating second division in its conference once, then every team in a rotating division in the opposite conference once, then one team from each of the remaining divisions in its own conference based on the previous season's record, we can organize MLS better, as follows.  

Let's take a look at what the schedule would look like for a 20 team league.  

Each team would play every team in its own division home and away for a total of 8 games.

Each team would play every team in the other division in their conference for a total of 10 games.

Each team would, on a rotating basis, play one full division in the other conference home and away for a total of 10 games.

Each team would play two teams out of the remaining non-conference division home and away for 4 games, matchups based on last season's finishes.    

This is a 32-game schedule, completely balanced home and away.  In any given year, teams would not play three teams from the opposite conference in the regular season.

(There is a minor mathematical discrepancy in the seeding of the matchups versus the division in the opposite conference in which one only plays two teams.  Can anyone spot it?)

So, suppose Major League Soccer was organized like this in 2010:

Western Conference:

Pacific Division:

Seattle Sounders

L.A. Galaxy

San Jose Earthquakes

Chivas USA

Mountain Division:

Colorado Rapids

Real Salt Lake

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

Eastern Conference:

Central Division:

Columbus Crew

Kansas City Wizards

Chicago Fire

Toronto FC

Eastern Division:

New York Red Bulls

New England Revolution

D.C. United

Philadelphia Union

What would the standings have looked like?

Western Conference

Pacific Division

L.A. Galaxy (59)

Seattle Sounders (48)

San Jose Earthquakes (46)

Chivas USA (28)

Mountain Division

Real Salt Lake (56)

FC Dallas (50)

Colorado Rapids (46)

Houston Dynamo (33)

Eastern Conference

Central Division

Columbus Crew (50)

Kansas City Wizards (39)

Chicago Fire (36)

Toronto FC (35)

Eastern Division

New York Red Bulls (52)

New England Revolution (32)

Philadelphia Union (31)

D.C. United (22)

This system would have resulted in the following playoff seedings:

Western Conference

1. L.A. Galaxy (Pacific Division & Conference Winners)

2. Real Salt Lake (Mountain Division Winners)

3. FC Dallas (Wild Card - 50 pts.)

4. Seattle Sounders (Wild Card - 48 pts.)  

Eastern Conference

1. New York Red Bulls (Eastern Division & Conference Winners)

2. Columbus Crew (Central Division Winners)

3. Kansas City Wizards (Wild Card Winners - 39 pts.)

4. Chicago Fire (Wild Card Winners - 36 pts.)

Maybe we don't want an NFL, NBA, etc. style divisional league.  Colorado and San Jose garnered more points than KC or Chicago. 

On the other hand, as MLS currently sits, conference-non-conference games don't have a meaningful distinction, whereas divisional games would, as in NFL football.

Suppose we had a single table, with no conferences, and the top eight teams make the playoffs and are seeded accordingly?

1. L.A. vs. 8. San Jose

2. Real Salt Lake vs. 7. Colorado

3. New York vs. 6. Seattle

4. FC Dallas vs. Columbus Crew

You pick.