No league wants its playoffs to be described as interminable, but that’s the best word to describe the Major League Soccer playoffs. The 12-team competition takes more than 1½ months to complete. What should be the focused, dramatic centerpiece of the league season is instead a slog. The league needs to do something to shorten it.
The main problem is the two-match, aggregate-score format of the conference semifinals and finals. While this type of playoff has a long history in soccer — it’s used in the knockout rounds of the European Champions League, for instance — it often results in dull games, especially because MLS stubbornly insists on using “away goals” as the tiebreaker.
The Seattle-Vancouver semifinal this year was a perfect example. Vancouver, playing at home in the first leg, decided its best chance on winning the series was on the away-goals tiebreaker. This led to an immensely boring 0-0 draw in the first leg, with Seattle only creating some life in the second leg with a pair of second-half goals. The Whitecaps ended the series with exactly one shot on target in two games. It was a terrible matchup.
Just eliminating the two-legged setup of these matches would go a long way toward shortening the slog. Having a single-elimination playoff tournament hasn’t exactly killed interest in the World Cup or the FA Cup. And it would make the regular-season battle for playoff seeds even more important, with playoff home-field advantage on the line.
Anything that makes the MLS regular season more important is a good thing, and given the difficulties of playing on the road in MLS, home playoff games would be very valuable. Even more important, it would eliminate the ludicrous away-goals tiebreaker and guarantee that every winner-take-all playoff match is a must-watch game.
It doesn’t help that FIFA schedules a mid-November international break every year, putting a two-week dent into the playoff schedule as top players head off to play for their countries. The pause means that this year the MLS Cup Final isn’t until Dec. 9, nearly seven weeks after the end of the regular season.
This kind of drawn-out playoff is problematic enough for a league like the NBA or NHL, in which teams are playing 20 to 25 playoff games in a two-month span. In MLS, teams are packing only five or six games into that seven weeks — not enough to keep the interest level high.
Eliminating the two-legged matchups would make the playoffs, at most, four weeks long, and give the league the option of either completing the tournament before the break or saving the conference semifinals and beyond for after the break.
Either way, shorter playoffs would be more entertaining and help make the regular season more important. For MLS, those would be positive steps.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• Real Madrid couldn’t actually be thinking about firing coach Zinedine Zidane, could it? Madrid lost last weekend 2-1 to tiny Girona, playing in its debut first-division season in Spain. Then in midweek, Real Madrid went to London and lost 3-1 to Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League. Madrid is the defending Spanish and European champion, but if any club is crazy enough to fire a club legend for two bad results, it’s Real.
• When MLS began, most of its teams played in cavernous football stadiums. The league, focused on survival, began a decades-long drive to get its teams playing in smaller, purpose-built soccer stadiums. Now, with Seattle and Atlanta drawing huge crowds in football stadiums, the pendulum may be swinging the other way. Detroit’s MLS expansion bid recently announced it was dropping plans to build a stadium and instead would play its theoretical home games at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions.
• Atlanta United attacker Miguel Almiron could set a record this winter for the highest transfer fee for an MLS player. Almiron, a 23-year-old Paraguayan, cost Atlanta about $9 million when he came from the club Lanus in Argentina last winter. Now he’s rumored to be on his way to Newcastle or Arsenal in the Premier League for $20 million or more.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich at Borussia Dortmund, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, FS2. Just three weeks ago, Dortmund had a five-point lead at the top of the league and Bayern was firing its manager. Since then, Munich has won three matches in a row and Dortmund’s defense has fallen apart — and Bayern now leads the league by three points.
Premier League: Arsenal at Manchester City, 8:15 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Can anyone slow down Manchester City? The Citizens have taken 28 of a possible 30 points this season and have scored half again as many goals as any other team. Arsenal is hoping its own attacking stars can put some pressure on City’s revamped defense.
Premier League: Manchester United at Chelsea, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. While Manchester City has soared, Chelsea and United have stumbled. While it’s early in the season, neither wants to see the gap at the top grow. United coach Jose Mourinho (above) tends to set his team up defensively on the road in big games.
MLS: New York at Toronto, 2 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. You have to see this Toronto team, which might be the best squad in MLS history. The Reds hold a 2-1 advantage over the Red Bulls after the first leg of this one, but cruising to an easy home draw and a berth in the conference finals really isn’t Toronto’s style.