by Matt - US Soccer Daily
It seems like Jim Mora and many fans around MLS have been on the same page lately. Five playoff matches have been played, and the crowds have been unimpressive, to say the least. Yes, there was over 35,000 in Seattle, but they’d sell-out a January friendly against a high school JV team, so it’s not something that can be attributed to “playoff fever”. And yes, 25,000 plus turned out for the Chivas USA – LA Galaxy opener, but that’s not out of the norm either, considering the attendance at the regular SuperClasico was similar. Outside of those two special cases, the playoff crowds have been underwhelming at best. It makes me wonder: do people really care about the playoffs? Do we even need them? I’m not a Eurosnob, so hear me out, but based on the kind of attention they actually receive from the fans, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to just do away with the postseason.
Let’s take a look at the other crowds from the playoffs thus far:
Chicago @ New England: 7,416
Columbus @ Real Salt Lake: 11,499
RSL @ Columbus: 10,109
In most sports, the playoffs are when teams draw big crowds regardless of how well they were drawing in the regular season. How often do you see an NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL playoff game that isn’t sold out? And even if it isn’t sold out, it still draws fairly well. MLS, meanwhile, has struggled to get that extra bump from postseason excitement and attention. Houston and DC have historically drawn well for the postseason, but they’ve also consistently attracted good crowds in the regular season. It’s those teams towards the middle and bottom of the average attendance table that should be getting a bump from the playoffs (as is the case in other sports), but that just isn’t happening. Is it because of a lack of marketing? Weather? Apathy? It’s hard to say, but it just seems like the playoffs are not really different from the regular season in regards to the attention they receive from fans.
I hear so often how playoffs are ingrained in our sports culture, and I agree that they are definitely a big part of how we view our leagues. But the single table format also has a history in the States, in America’s pastime no less. For years, the champion of baseball was decided by a single table. Even with the advent of the World Series, the respective winners of the American League and National League did not have to navigate through the gauntlet of postseason play; they earned that title by simply finishing atop the standings at year’s end. It was only until expansion made a balanced schedule impractical that baseball added playoff rounds. Likewise, football cannot play a balanced schedule, and basketball and hockey choose not to. In these situations where schedules are not the same, playoffs are useful, since regular season standings can be skewed by cupcake divisions and such. But in the past, we have utilized the single table when possible, and I think MLS should do the same.
Beyond the attendance aspect of it, the format of the playoffs irks more than a few people. Who really thinks Real Salt Lake should have the opportunity to be considered MLS champions this year? Does anyone actually think they are a better team than Columbus, or did they just get hot at the right time? Personally, if the playoffs are going to stick around, I’d want the number of teams cut down. Only the best of the best, maybe the top four teams, should go through, so we don’t have a repeat of Steve Sampson’s LA Galaxy title run a few years ago. If this is how the league champion is going to be decided, I don’t want a sub .500 team vying for the title.
If MLS expansion continues, playoffs might be necessary, but for what will be a 16 team league next year, things are set up perfectly for a 30 game balanced schedule and a single table to decide the champion. Regardless of whether Don Garber and company decide to go in this direction, I just hope that they really look at the playoff structure and consider making some changes so that the domestic champion is actually a worthy side.