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The MLS’ Bizzarro Playoff Format

NY Red Bulls


Red Bulls might play in the Western Conference playoffs. Huh?

By Mike Valdetara

Sports are a bizarre enterprise filled with unlucky moments, extraordinary plays, and odd bounces. These sorts of things happen from time to time and are accepted as “part of the game.” Now having been following the Nets and Jets for as long as I’ve lived, I have obviously seen my fair share of bizarre plays. From Devin Harris catching, dribbling, bobbling and releasing a half-court game winner in under 1.8 seconds to offensive lineman Jumbo Elliot catching a game-tying touchdown pass in the “Monday Night Miracle.”

In covering the Red Bulls on Saturday night, I may have seen one of the most bizarre things in my fifteen years of sports fandom, only this did not take place on the field, but in the press box of Red Bull Arena. Upon entering the box during pregame warmups, I picked up my usual printouts: the game guide, team sheet, and league leaders. Only this time there was a fourth sheet labeled “MLS Playoff Standings.” Any rational sports fan would expect to see a 2 column sheet with standings for the eastern and western conference. However, the MLS has a different way of handling things. They have created a system that lists the top three teams of each conference in two separate columns and all other teams in the wild card race. This format was introduced at the beginning of this season to add more depth to the playoffs.

This wild card race includes every team not in the top three of their respective conference. The top four teams in this group will make up the play-in portion of the MLS Cup Playoffs regardless of which conference they hail from. So in reality, 4 Eastern or Western conference teams could be playing in these play-in games. As of now, there are 2 teams from each conference in position to qualify. These wild card teams will face off in a single elimination playoff with the first wild card team hosting the fourth and the second place team hosting the third. At this point alone a problem arises. If the playoffs started today, the Red Bulls would have to travel cross country to Dallas for a single game and Philadelphia would have to journey to Colorado. Anyone else notice a simple fix to these grueling travel plans. If the MLS would assign two wild card slots to each conference, like every other major sport does, we would have Philadelphia and New York facing off while Colorado would visit Dallas. Much simpler.

Now after these two play-in games, an even larger bizarre happening may occur. The two winners of the play-in games are set to play the highest seeds in each conference. The lowest of the two wild card seeds has to travel to face the Supporters’ Shield winner, a term given to the team with the best record in the entire league. The other wild card winner plays the number one seed from the conference opposite of the Supporters’ Shield winner. So, hypothetically, the Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union can both win their play-in games. Since the Red Bulls are the lower wild card seed, they would have to play the team with the best record, which would be the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Union would play Eastern Conference leaders, Houston, who I believe should not even be a part of the Eastern Conference, but I digress. So, the Red Bulls would be playing in the conference semifinals, only problem is that it’s the Western Conference semifinals! Not to mention that the semifinals are a two game, home and away format. This means we could see a Semifinal that takes place on two different coasts. What kind of playoff system has a team that has played its whole season in the Eastern Conference, suddenly battling the Western Conference to represent that conference in the MLS Championship?

This whole system is a logistics nightmare. If they were to make a deep run in the playoffs, should the Red Bulls even bother returning to the east coast? They would most likely square off against Dallas, Los Angeles, and then either Seattle or Salt Lake. This makes no sense to me as I believe the MLS should focus on its rivalries to make the league more appealing. If the Portland Timbers can sneak into the playoffs, it’d be great to see them battle their rivals in Seattle. The MLS is missing out on a possible wildcard matchup between Philadelphia and New York. So, the MLS should stick to the trend and just keep the wild card seeds in conference.