News Analysis: Why is MLS embracing a playoff format disliked by players and fans?

Los Angeles FC forward Denis Bouanga, left, greets forward Mario González.

No one will ever accuse Major League Soccer of being a slave to tradition.

The league expands more often than a hot-air balloon and has changed its playoff format three times in the last six seasons. In MLS, the only constant is change.

Change, however, isn’t always progress. Take the league’s newest playoff format.

No, really ... take it. Please.

After the longest season in MLS history, the league has returned this fall to the three-game first-round playoff schedule it rightly rejected after the 2002 season. And the (very) early results suggest the fans aren’t buying it, with several thousand empty seats watching both LAFC and the Philadelphia Union roll to convincing wins in the first games of their postseason series.

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The lack of interest is understandable because the first game of a three-game series doesn’t decide anything. Rather than building interest, it sucks the urgency out of the match.

“Does that belong in our sport? Best-of-three? Best-of-five? Best-of-seven?” LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau asked. “Home-away games, I totally understand it. We’ve seen it for years. But to start to add on and add on and add on, does that really translate to our sport? I don’t know.”

But wait, it gets worse. Under the new format, games cannot end in a draw, going directly to penalty kicks instead. Goal differential doesn’t matter either so LAFC’s 5-2 win over Vancouver on Saturday on two goals each from Denis Bouanga and Ryan Hollingshead counts the same as a 1-0 win on an own goal. Whichever team wins two games advances to the conference semifinals, where the playoffs revert back to single-elimination games leading to the MLS Cup final.

And with a FIFA international break sandwiched in between the first and second rounds, teams may go more than three weeks between games after averaging a match every five days during the regular season. That, too, figures to rob the playoffs of momentum and interest.

“Yeah, it's weird,” Hollingshead said. “We've never experienced this before. The MLS is always mixing it up, trying something new.”

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The league defends the three-game first round by saying it’s like World Cup group play, ignoring the fact that it is in no way like World Cup group play, the only similarity being the number of games.

In World Cup group play, the three games are against different opponents; in the MLS playoffs, all three games are against the same team. In World Cup group play, draws and goal differential not only matter, they’re often part of the strategy; in the MLS playoffs, the only thing that counts are wins, no matter how they’re achieved.

Last year’s playoffs, which ended with LAFC beating the Union on penalty kicks, was one of the most exciting postseason tournaments in league history. So why did MLS tinker with something that obviously wasn’t broken?

The general consensus says it was done to create content, and hence revenue, for broadcast partner Apple, which last year signed a 10-year, $2.5-billion deal to stream MLS games.

“I don’t understand what is the point of three games in the first round. I don’t understand what they are thinking or why they make that,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela said. When a reporter gestured as if he were counting money, Vela nodded. “Yeah, we know. Everybody knows. But we can’t say nothing.”

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LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, who has said something, took heat from the league earlier this year for criticizing the format, so he declined to answer a direct question about the playoffs last week, smiling and pursing his lips instead. Asked again after Saturday’s win, he voiced frustration.

“Ah, I see where you’re going. And I don’t like the direction,” he told the questioner. “Look, we all knew what was at stake sometime this summer when the new format was revealed to us. So everybody understands the format. We'll just keep it at that. It is what it is.”

And what it is isn’t good.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.