Born of necessity - it’s very creation a condition of the awarding of the FIFA 1994 World Cup to the USA – MLS has come a long way in less than 20 years.
As the league moves toward the close of it’s second decade of play, it is very easy to forget how humble were it’s beginnings. Initially, there were concerns there wouldn’t be enough “pro calibre” players to fill it’s rosters. There was, of course, an existing system of leagues in place when MLS was brought into existence. And at least some clubs in those leagues would pay players more money than MLS could.
Nonetheless, the fledgling league and it’s 8 teams did take the field in 1996. Included were many domestic players, a few CONCACAF internationals and the obligatory sprinkling of fading European and South American stars – needed as much for their names as remaining ability.
The principles that allowed the league to survive it’s formative years are well known: extraordinarily wealthy and patient benefactors (Hunt, Anschutz et al), central ownership of contracts and, as a result, an artificially low salary cap. MLS itself might enter into a bidding war for a player, but the owner-operators could never engage in the traditional “checkbooks at dawn” duel amongst themselves.
These factors kept expenditure relatively low (even for teams employing a prized DP or two, the annual wage bill tends to be less than 25% of the value of the club – for the bigger clubs, much less). With distributions from SUM (Soccer United Marketing) also providing significant income for member teams, owning an MLS club isn’t a bad business these days.
That hard salary cap may solve one obvious problem for ownership and administration, but it is far from a cure all. In fact, it has created for MLS a significant problem in the form of staggering parity. While leagues typically consider parity to be generally desirable, the fact is that in any sport it is great teams and dynasties that drive interest amongst the general public – particularly if those dynasties are based in major economic centres.
This playoff season has been unusual for MLS in that three of the top four seeds have moved on to the conference finals (though not the league’s top three markets, nor it’s two most star studded teams). Generally, the league has not been this lucky. Indeed, the viewer is often left to wonder after an MLS cup, “do we actually know that the champions are better than the sixth place club in either conference?”. When the cup is contested between two midpack sides who either became healthy or came into form during the last few weeks of a long season, this is not an unreasonable question.
In a league in which the salary cap seems akin to the holiest of sacred scrolls, can this parity problem be fixed?
If we accept that a hard and relatively low salary cap is not going away; and that MLS will retain relative parity among teams (even those spending heavily on DPs), there are still ways that the playoff system can become more relevant to broadcasters and fans alike.
First, there is no legitimate need for playoff matchups based on a two leg total goal format. There should be a reward for finishing above your rivals in the league table, and that reward should be hosting a one game elimination playoff. Total goal playoff series are an anathema to North American broadcasters – they don’t know how to handle them and they’d really rather not be stuck broadcasting both games when only the last one “matters”. These ties lack the finality required for drama obsessed sports fans & networks.
Second, if MLS insists on having five teams from each conference in the playoffs, at least give the conference winners a bye. The others will playoff over the course of a week to determine who meets the league champions in the conference finals. Again, there should be a reward for finishing first. A bye into the conference final is not too great a prize, nor is a 7-10 day break after a long season.
Finally, stop using wins or goal difference as a playoff qualifier. If two teams are tied on points at the end of the season, schedule play in games as needed.
Losing the two leg playoff would impact the the two lower ranked team’s gate revenue, of course. However, the full week saved in this new playoff format could easily be incorporated into the regular season, meaning that all teams get one more home date to sell, rather than just the two 3rd & 4th place finishers. Alternately, those two free dates could allow for more international dates to be honoured or a break during the sweltering summer heat.
Networks would be much more drawn to a sport in which there is a clear winner after each playoff match (as well as a loser packing for the off season). A compacted playoff schedule in which two teams are eliminated every three or four days would drive greater fan interest and general media coverage (as it does in several other sports). MLS already has the core soccer fan. What it lacks is broader appeal to a general audience.
If you are going to have a playoff system, “Win or go home” must be the mantra, not “Let’s see what happens tonight and then we’ll know what the teams have to do in the second leg”.
Like it or not, North America is not Europe. We’ll never accept meaningless playoff games in our own leagues, just as we’ll never accept a league in which there isn’t a playoff tournament at the end of the season.
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