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Why the MLS Play-Off Format Creates More Excitement


Why the MLS Play-Off Format Creates More Excitement

The MLS – Major League Soccer – is the highest level of professional football in the United States and Canada. The league itself is played out in a different format to most leagues around the world.

In the MLS there is no promotion/relegation system in place, and there are two different trophies awarded to teams in a season – the first trophy is given to the best-performing side across the course of the regular season, with the second one awarded to the winners of a post-season knockout tournament.

The winners of that post-season tournament are considered the proper league champions for the season, and that is where controversy and questions begin – some people think that awarding the term league champions to the winners of a short knockout tournament rather than the best performing side over the course of a regular 34-game MLS season is unfair.

How the MLS Works

Major League Soccer's regular season runs from late February or early March until October.

All participating teams are divided into divisions known as conferences, with teams allocated into these conferences based on their geographical location. There are always new teams being added to the league every few years, but currently, there are 28 teams participating, with 14 in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference.

The team that gains the most points throughout the regular season, regardless of conference, finishes as the regular-season champion and win what is called the Supporters' Shield.

But despite the best-performing team being awarded this trophy, the Supporters' Shield isn't actually considered to be the most prestigious award a team can win in the MLS, and the side that does win it aren't really considered the MLS champions. It's what comes after the regular season that determines who the champion for that year is - the MLS Cup.

A postseason knockout tournament known as the MLS Cup follows the end of the regular season, and the winners of this are considered the proper league champions for that season.

To be crowned MLS Cup winners, teams must go through the MLS Cup play-offs (single-elimination matches every round) and reach the final, with the top seven sides from each conference all qualifying for the play-off phase, and the two sides who finish top in their respective conferences are given a first-round bye.

The play-offs unfold between October and November, and the two sides who make it all the way through then meet each other in the final, which is always held in December.


USA MLS Cup Winner 2022 Odds

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Los Angeles FC @ 5/1

What Does the Play-Offs Give Us?

Now while the fact that two different teams are awarded trophies for what is essentially the same competition is controversial to many, it does have some upsides.

The MLS play-offs are essentially like the Champions League, where the best of the best face each other for the chance to win what is considered a hugely prestigious piece of silverware at the end.

What the play-offs mainly does is it gives other teams the chance to win silverware - perhaps a side who had a very strong regular season but were undone by injuries to key players or they were hard done by refereeing decisions - the MLS Cup and play-offs gives these sides a chance to finish the season off strongly with a trophy and gives their fans something to remember.

The MLS Cup gives us a variety of winners that are different from the Supporters’ Shield. In fact, it's proven quite rare that the Supporters’ Shield winners go on to win the MLS Cup - it has happened only seven times since the league’s inception in 1996. DC United did it twice in 1997 and 1999, LA Galaxy also did it twice in 2002 and 2011, and Kansas City Wizards, Columbus Crew and Toronto FC all did it in 2000, 2008 and 2017 respectively.

In the other 19 seasons of the league’s 26-year existence, there has been a different Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup winner every year. So what the play-offs do is gives more teams the chance to be crowned champions.

USA MLS Cup Winner 2022 Odds

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New York City FC @ 15/2

Are the Play-Offs Actually Exciting?

Many people feel that in regard to the MLS, just having a regular season is enough as it adequately recognizes the best performing side over the course of a 34-game league season.

A play-off format, while giving people more football to watch, is unnecessary and disregards all the consistency and hard work required by teams during the regular season. But the play-offs can be exciting…

Knockout tournaments, such as the Champions League, have provided us with many amazing moments and matches, and this is what the play-offs give - the unpredictability and potential for amazing matches.

The play-offs also demand other things from teams – the ability to perform well in a one-off critical game, rather than a team losing a game but still managing to keep their place in the table if they are near the top like in the regular season. And this testing of a team’s ability to perform in a one-off game where the stakes are high is considered by some to be as valid a test of champions as the consistency required over a long regular season.

With the play-offs being single matches, it makes the matches themselves that much more riveting, as every game is like a final.

There is no second leg, aggregate score or away goals rule that helps out a side – everything is to play for in that one match. And these stakes make for some excellent football matches. As does the quality of the sides involved, as only the best performing teams from both conferences participate in the play-offs – this makes the quality of the matches even better.

USA MLS Cup Winner 2022 Odds

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Philadelphia @ 9/1

Could This Format Work in Other Leagues?

It potentially could, as the lawmakers of the game could see this as an opportunity to give less talented teams the chance to claim scalps against the bigger clubs, which happens so frequently in knockout tournaments.

Whether or not this change would ever come into effect in Europe is another question altogether, but with the recent introduction of a third European competition in the Conference League and the changes to the Champions League due to come into effect in 2024/25, it shows that footballing authorities are willing to make changes to the game, so the play-off format, whilst extremely unlikely, can’t be ruled out.

Nevertheless, most of Europe’s top five leagues are dominated by the same sides, such as Manchester City, PSG, and Bayern Munich, so let’s take a look at if the format could work in them.

In the Premier League, which has been dominated by Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea over the last decade, a play-off format would certainly give us some amazing matches of football.

Every time that Liverpool and Manchester City square off with one another, it provides us with a thrilling game of football, so this in a play-off format would also be a great watch. And with the quality of Chelsea, and the rise of Tottenham and Arsenal in recent years, combined with the spending power of Manchester United, means that either of the Premier League’s big six could win a play-off tournament.

Teams like Arsenal and Manchester City are also very good in knockout competitions like the FA Cup and Carabao Cup, so they likely could repeat their performances in those competitions in a play-off format.

In Ligue 1, PSG are always the favourites to win the league, and they have won it eight times out of the last 10 seasons, with surprise wins coming for Monaco in 2016/17 and for Lille in 2020/21. And before that, Montpellier claimed their maiden league title in 2011/12.

So despite PSG’s dominance of the league, there are occasionally some surprise winners.

And it is these surprises, coupled with the talent of Marseille and Lyon, that means that if a play-off format were introduced in France, yes PSG would win, but there would likely be some surprise wins for other teams aswell.

Despite the dominance of Juventus in Serie A since 2012, their reign of success seems to be coming to an end, with no league title for the Old Lady since the 2019/20 season, and the rise of rival clubs such as Napoli, AC Milan and Inter Milan.

But although the Milan teams finally regained the Scudetto, it was a hard journey, where they did suffer defeat to teams like Juventus and Napoli, and that combined with the rise of Roma under Jose Mourinho means that a play-off format would work to provide some good matches in Italy.

However, with the Bundesliga and La Liga, we can not see a play-off format working here, simply due to the sheer dominance of the top teams in those leagues. Bayern have won the last 10 Bundesliga seasons in a row, and in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won the league title in 17 out of the last 20 seasons - for these sides, their dominance doesn’t look like ending any time soon, even with the addition of a play-off tournament.

But overall, the addition of play-offs is a very interesting idea and could add a competitive edge to most leagues.