Major League Soccer’s postseason: Playoff soccer shouldn’t take this long

Things Wikipedia tells us about the number 40:

  • The highest number ever counted to on Sesame Street;
  • The international dialing code for Romania;
  • The number of spaces in a standard Monopoly board;
  • In the Bible, the number of days and nights during which rain fell in the Flood.

Pretty significant number, then. It’s also the amount in days from the start of the Major League Soccer playoffs on Wednesday until the LA Galaxy lifts MLS Cup on December 7.

It’s a long road. And what do many of us do when we’re on long roads? Engage the cruise control and only return to complete concentration when the journey’s coming to its end.

The problem isn’t that MLS has playoffs – of course it does, it’s a North American sport. It’s that MLS’s playoffs are long, with large gaps between ties, and that’s a fundamental disconnect with the intensive nature of tournament soccer.

Ten teams, 40 days, 15 games: It’s a knockout tournament on a league timetable. This year’s MLS Cup winner will play either five or six games in about five weeks. It’s no more strenuous than a typical month during the regular season. The schedule doesn’t reflect the special, dramatic nature of playoff soccer. There’s too much breathing space. We want March Madness; we get November Sensible.

Contrast with this year’s World Cup: 32 teams, 64 games, 32 days. We’re conditioned to competitions being like Black Friday – a crowded, greedy trolley dash that sweeps up the whole nation in the consumerism craziness. Instead we have to endure a whole lot of Monday mornings to get to that Friday feeling. Momentum fades during long pauses. The deeper into winter we go, the greater risk of weather issues. Quality of play suffers because playoff beards are so long and heavy that they impede movement.

Let’s take a look at how long the postseason lasted in the other main North American sports this year:

NBA, Apr 19 – Jun 15: 58 days
NHL, Apr 16 – Jun 13: 53 days
NFL, Jan 4 – Feb 2: 30 days
MLB, Sep 30 – Oct 28/29: 29/30 days

That’s right, the all-consuming NFL, the sport more bloated than Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote …

… has playoffs 10 days shorter than MLS – but with two more teams. So does Major League Baseball, the home of the Bottomless Regular Season (TM). As for the NBA – yes, their playoffs make the presidential primaries look quick. But they’re busy, all right. This year, 16 teams played 89 games. Playoffs in other sports feel like marathon and sprint, all at once.

This year in MLS, knockout round winners get three days rest before the semifinals start. After that, though, everyone gets at least a week between games, save for the East semifinal involving D.C. United, which gets six days between legs.

Then there is a gap of two weeks between the conference semifinals and finals, because it’s a FIFA international date, and the United States is playing a couple of games in Europe. But there’s only a one-week gap between the finals and MLS Cup, half as long as last year, which is a smart move.

Especially now that the league is expanding so in 2015 half its teams won’t reach the playoffs, the fourth vs. fifth place games are a neat idea to help maintain interest during the regular campaign. Still, it feels crammed in, and empty seats aren’t a good look.

This week’s two knockout matches are not directly taking on Halloween, which didn’t help attendances in Chicago and Houston the past two years. But FC Dallas only had three days to presell tickets for their knockout round game against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday.

Not that most people will notice if Toyota Stadium’s crowd is sparse, because the game isn’t on national TV in the U.S. Last Friday’s match between two teams who didn’t reach the postseason, Chicago and Houston, was on NBCSN. Yet some actual playoff games aren’t (at least on English-language channels), which just feels wrong.

This year the scheduling looks better overall than in 2013. Still, games will take place over Thanksgiving weekend and the final is on a Sunday afternoon, not a Saturday as a year ago. That puts it directly against seven NFL games competing for media attention. And wouldn’t things look more streamlined and dramatic if the conference semifinals were one-off games?

It’s a truly difficult, perhaps impossible balance to strike given the variables: TV, stadium availability, FIFA dates, fear of lower midweek attendances, the urge to give players time to recover and media narratives time to develop. But the playoffs are MLS’s biggest chance to shine, and they haven’t yet become ritual event TV for the mild-to-moderate soccer-curious set.

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