You may want to take a seat for this one because I am not only going to give MLS props - I am going to give it props for a widely criticized move.
The 2015 MLS Playoff setup is far superior to the past setup. If you think the "expansion" from five- to six-team conference playoffs ruins the integrity of the regular season, I hate to tell you - you're wrong.
As teams enter their final push for a playoff spot in the final third of the season, it looks like the remaining regular season games will be more meaningful than ever before. Many opined adding a sixth team in each conference to a bloated playoff system would ruin both the playoffs and most importantly the regular season, which was already dangerously close to meaningless for some fans.
But in reality, this new playoff format has made the regular season more important than ever, correctly rewarding teams deserving of the perks that should come with a strong season.
First and foremost, the new format only promises a true playoff spot to the top two teams in each conference as opposed to the top three in the previous format. If the playoffs were to start today, FC Dallas, in third place, would have to compete in a play-in game against the Seattle Sounders, in sixth. While the Sounders have been dreadful lately, do you really think FC Dallas wants to play a Seattle side with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins back in the lineup? FC Dallas has more motivation than ever to try and crack the top-two and avoid a winner-take-all scenario where a strong season could be erased in a game. Had this been 2014, FC Dallas could be complacent with a third-place finish, knowing their spot was cemented.
Likewise, if Seattle battled its way to a third-place finish, it would no longer be rewarded with a guaranteed spot. The punishment for this current poor run of form would be a play-in game.
Just as there are clear rewards for finishing second as opposed to third, there are clear rewards for finishing first in conference instead of second. To win the conference not only guarantees a spot in the playoffs proper, but a place in the Champions League. In previous regular season runs, winning the conference could mean nothing as the MLS Cup runner up took a Champions League place. Finishing first in the conference or third in previous years made little difference unless the conference winner was the Supporters’ Shield victor.
With clear incentives at the top of the table for the league’s best teams to continue to compete hard and jockey for position, the bottom table teams also get just enough of a carrot dangled in front of them to compete hard until the end. While I understand the frustration of rewarding a sixth-place team with a shot at the playoffs, it does give more teams incentive to play hard in the regular season and the reward is not all that great. Sixth-place teams have the not-so-easy task of traveling to a very good team’s home stadium in a high pressure situation where it is win or go home.
I see no problem in giving a sixth-place team a long-shot game as opposed to rewarding a third-place team with an automatic spot in the true playoffs as previously done.
Games on both ends of the table should be more competitive and meaningful as the season winds down to a close. The new playoff format has enhanced the regular season, not hurt it. I know it’s fashionable to bash the MLS power-that-be with all their zany rules and funny money, but I truly believe the league got it right in this case.