Chicago’s meandering and oft-discussed road to the 2018 NWSL playoffs has been as exciting an end to a Red Stars season as one can imagine in recent history. Their epic “the playoffs start now” road trip through North Carolina, Seattle, Portland, and Orlando kick-started momentum that the Chicago Red Stars have carried through into playoff qualification, and hopefully beyond. And their post-season counterparts are possibly the strongest field the NWSL has produced over its six years of existence. Which leads me to another of my long list of questions for how we want to do things in the future.
This year’s playoffs are going to be amazing. So why do they have to be so short?
I understand the answer to that question this year is “the US Women’s National Team has to dip out and qualify for the 2019 World Cup real quick,” but the league should be taking a look at lengthening the post-season in the future as soon as possible. Not unlike an NWSL All-Star Game (which I still think should happen, by the way), a longer playoff series would drive revenue back to teams, extend an already short season, and give the post-season an added sense of gravitas as momentum builds.
Primarily, I think it would be fairly easily implementable to turn the NWSL semi-finals into a home and away structure, not unlike knockout stages of larger tournaments in Europe. That would guarantee every post-season eligible team a home playoff game, rewarding teams with a more significant ending to their year than say, the Tuesday night re-scheduled drubbing of Sky Blue that unceremoniously ended Chicago’s home schedule.
It would also, again not unlike an All-Star Game, relieve some of the anxiety surrounding the NWSL’s current neutral site Championship setup. While the benefits of a neutral site are numerous, it does risk the de-centralization of the fan-bases of the two teams that will actually end up playing for the Championship, with a quick turnaround to make plans should their teams come out of their semi-final on top. First and second legs help with some probability planning, as well as allowing fans to primarily support locally, and make sure that the clubs themselves are the ones benefiting from their achievements (not to mention another opportunity for the league to be showcased on national television).
With the yearly expanding and contracting size of the league making extending the regular season a more difficult sell, focusing in on making the post-season a longer event seems like a home run for all involved.
If the NWSL wants its playoffs to be a fitting cap to the regular season, it needs to lean into the drama and spectacle. A longer format would be a great start.