By: Andy Humphrey
One of Major League Soccer’s biggest selling points over the last decade has been the parity within the league. You can point to many instances where a bottom-feeder team transformed into a top seed over the course of just one season. It gives hope to the weak teams and forces the teams above them to take notice.
But come playoff time, is it too difficult for the higher-seeded teams to advance?
For those unfamiliar with the format, MLS follows a playoff structure similar to the NFL. Both conferences include six teams seeded 1-6 based on regular season finish. In each conference, there are two one-game playoff matches pitting the 3-seed against the 6-seed and the 4-seed against the 5-seed. Like the NFL, the top seeded team plays the lower seed out of the two winners from the two games and the 2-seed takes the other in the conference semifinals. From there, the conference semifinals and finals consist of two-leg, home-and-home, aggregate series, up until MLS Cup, which is one match only.
Sounds fair, right? On the surface, sure, but there are some other rules, too.
MLS recently added the away-goals tiebreaker rule to the two-leg aggregate series, giving the team who scores the most goals on the road the chance to move on in the event of an aggregate tie. Many European tournaments use this rule to help prevent players from having to play extra time and penalty kicks to break a tie. However, in my mind, MLS should have never implemented this rule.
Of course, all of the purist European soccer fans would tell me I’m insane after saying that. Look, I’m not here to say that the away-goals tiebreaker is a terrible rule. I actually think it works well in a lot of cases. But the MLS playoffs are different. The teams are seeded on performance and matched up based on their seeds. In tournaments like UEFA Champions League, matchups are determined based on lot drawing. It’s left totally up to chance. Using the away-goals tiebreaker makes the higher-seeded team less likely to move on, giving the low seed an extra avenue to find an advantage over the top dog.
This rule also can’t coexist with another faulty MLS playoff mandate. In the two-leg aggregate series, the lower seed always hosts first and the high seed always hosts last. This has been the case since 2003 when MLS first established two-leg aggregate series in the playoffs.
There’s an about equal amount of advantages and disadvantages to hosting last if you’re the high seed. An advantage would be the chance to host potential extra-time and penalty kicks in the event of a tie. A disadvantage is the pressure of performing well on your home turf after an underwhelming first leg performance.
In other situations, these rules can be successful, but pairing them together in MLS has incredibly devalued regular season performance.
Since 2005, exactly 50 percent of higher-seeded teams (26 out of 52) have advanced in two-leg aggregate playoff series. Sound very advantageous to you? I know we all like equality, but in this format, giving the 1-seed an equal chance of advancing as the 6-seed gives a huge slap in the face to the work the top-seeded team put in all season to get to that point.
Then, once the away-goals tiebreaker became a factor, it further diminished the higher seed’s advantages of hosting the second leg. Even a 0-0 road draw became troublesome for the high seed, who would then concede the power of away goals to their inferior opponent for leg 2. The away goals tiebreaker also decreased the chances of extra time and penalty kicks, an event the high seed would get the chance to host. (Only one out of three aggregate series ties have resulted in extra time/penalty kicks since MLS implemented the away-goals rule in 2014.)
However, this is not to say that higher-seeded teams no longer enjoy advantages in the MLS playoffs. The higher seed still enjoys the luxury of hosting one-match playoff rounds (including MLS Cup, since 2011), where home teams have emerged victorious nearly 75 percent of the time in MLS playoff history. But the disjointed structure of mixing one- and two-match playoff rounds is quite unique, and MLS needs to make sure it isn’t short-changing its higher playoff seeds.
I think the best solution to this problem is to allow the coaches of higher-seeded teams the choice of hosting either the first or second legs. There are advantages and disadvantages to both scenarios, and head coaches should have the power to decide which one favors their team the most.
I’m not only writing this opinion because higher seeds in the MLS playoffs were outscored 7-0 on the road against their lower-seeded opponents last Sunday, making it quite difficult for all of them to advance to the next round. These situations are nothing new for the top-performing regular season teams. They’ve experienced these hardships ever since aggregate series were a thing in their league.
The MLS regular season (232 days in 2016) lasts longer than all other major U.S. professional sport leagues. The teams that finish near the top should get rewarded, right?
(Featured Image: Ruben Diaz Jr., Flickr)