It's been a while since Major League Soccer announced their new playoff format, but I wanted to take my time and think about it before I passed my personal judgement on it
To be perfectly honest, MLS has been looking for a better playoff format for a long time. It seems like they change the format every year. This one is better, but not perfect.
For comparison purposes, let's look at the 2011 playoff format. The top three teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs, then the next four teams based on points, regardless of conference. The Wild Cards, seeded based on regular season points, would play a single elimination play-in game. The lowest remaining seed would play the Supporters Shield winner. The higher seed would play the other conference champion. The conference semifinals would be two-leg affairs, winner decided on aggregate score, with the winners advancing to single-game conference finals. Those conference winners would then move on to a neutral site MLS Cup.
The playoff format for 2012 is a little simpler. The top five teams in each conference will make the playoffs. The fourth- and fifth-place teams will play each other in a single game, winner advancing to the conference semifinals to play the first-place team in the conference. The conference semifinals and finals would both be two-leg, aggregate score matchups. The MLS Cup will be hosted by the highest remaining seed.
With that said, what would really change between the two? Not much, really.
Let's apply the 2012 format to the 2011 standings. In the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids would still qualify. In the Eastern Conference, Sporting Kansas City, the Houston Dynamo, Philadelphia Union, Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls would also still qualify.
The first difference would be in the first-round matchups. In 2011, FC Dallas played the Red Bulls and Columbus played Colorado. New York advanced to play the Galaxy and Colorado went on to face Sporting Kansas City.
In 2012, FC Dallas would play Colorado, the winner playing the Galaxy. Columbus and New York would face off for the right to play Sporting Kansas City.
The second difference would be the conference finals. Assuming the same teams won the conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Galaxy would host the second leg against Real Salt Lake. Sporting Kansas City would host their finale against Houston.
Would the site of MLS Cup change in this scenario? Actually, no. Los Angeles was the Supporters Shield winner and first seed overall, so they would host MLS Cup regardless.
How is this system better? Honestly, I believe it's better because there is a powerful incentive for winning the conference and/or the Supporters Shield: hosting the MLS Cup. Teams will want to make it as easy as they can on themselves to make it to and win a MLS Cup.
This format is still not perfect. It still allows more than half of the league to make the playoffs (10 of 19 teams). If I was in charge, we'd have a single table league and the team that finished in first place would be the league champion.
That's my opinion. What's yours?