Major League Soccer’s playoff format is the worst, until you consider the alternatives

What can Winston Churchill possibly teach us about soccer in our country? More than you think, it turns out. The U.K.’s celebrated wartime prime minister is credited with this wise chestnut: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Can we say the same for Major League Soccer’s beleaguered playoff structure?

Maybe we try a little harder to love it? Or accept it? Or at least to understand that there isn’t really an easy “fix?” Maybe it seems like the worst, until we consider the reality on the ground.

MLS fans tend to fall into one of two categories: Those who don’t like the MLS playoff structure, and those who absolutely hate it. Yes, a big portion of MLS supporters wish the whole notion of postseason soccer would go the way of the flip phone, disappear, and be relegated to some quaint vestige of a more primitive time. But since MLS owners and commissioner Don Garber are big advocates, and since this is the United States, where we like our playoffs, that set will just have to get over it.

2013 MLS Cup-Real Salt Lake v Sporting Kansas City

Meanwhile, everyone else has an opinion on some facet of Major League Soccer’s imperfect format: the pacing of matches, the number of matches, the home-and-away series aspect, the inconsistency between rounds, the weight of the regular season finish, the tie-breaking methodology or (and this is the big fire that sucks the oxygen out of this combustible room) the number of teams involved.

The big problem is this: The perfect system doesn’t exist. In that way, it’s like a magic unicorn, or the perfect woman: things that have never been documented because they just aren’t out there. Show me any proposed MLS playoff structure and I will show you someone who has a big problem with it.

A central problem is that we are essentially developing something new when it comes to MLS’s playoffs, so there’s no safety net of tradition. There’s no starting point of trust in the established way. The NFL system has its potholes, but we generally accept it because, well, you know … tradition.

Plus, in soccer’s particular case, there is natural resistance to playoffs in the first place. It’s a product of purest ideology – the fact that most countries don’t have them, or use them sparingly. Never mind that single table and promotion-relegation formats were established in lands afar, where so many things in the culture tend to be … oh, what’s the word … oh, yes: different.

Meanwhile, as this year’s version of the playoff debate unfolds, we are smack in the middle of a postseason that bequeaths two dandy matchups. The MLS conference finals are stacked with compelling story lines: Thierry Henry’s and Landon’s Donovan’s last laps, the Seattle-Galaxy battle of the West’s best, etc. Be it New England or New York, LA or the Sounders, we’re guaranteed a stellar MLS Cup final.

Can. Not. Wait.

Republic of Ireland v USA - International Friendly

But let’s not allow that to stop us. The prevailing complaint du jour seems to be this: the FIFA window interrupted the pace of this year’s playoff action, so our A.D.D. kicked in and we’ve all wandered off to look at Kim Kardashian’s best asset, or something like that. This from a post at the popular Sounder At Heart site: “The pace of the MLS playoffs is glacial. Big Island lava moves faster. Not only is it like watching paint dry, it’s like watching it get scraped off and painted again.”

This year’s pace did turn into something of a slog due to the FIFA break, but what was the alternative? As sure as Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena will moan about something on the sidelines this weekend, I can tell you this: The outrage would be cranked up to 11 if there was no break. (MLS absolutely, positively made the right call by pausing during the window.)

In fact, we can balance that Sounder At Heart piece and the sentiment it champions with this one, where I argued a year ago for slowing the pace of early playoff rounds. Racing too quickly through the MLS post-season limits ticket sales opportunities and strips away the chance to build meaningful playoff momentum. I sometimes watch with envy as interest builds and builds over the longer NBA or NHL playoff series, and I wish the same for MLS.

Some of this bellyaching is not a “soccer thing.” Just as playoffs are an American thing, we need to understand that “complaining about playoff systems” is an American thing, too. Sixteen teams in the NBA and NHL playoffs? Holy erosion! Talk about devaluing the regular season.

We would actually hear more about problems with the playoffs in American football, basketball, hockey, etc. except for this: We accept them, grudgingly, because this is the way it’s always been. Not so much in soccer, where the league’s new enough to demand change.

None of this is to say that Major League Soccer’s playoff system doesn’t need some further adjustment. But so many suggested fixes ignore certain realities; namely, the playoff structure and mechanics are boxed in by bigger scheduling headaches, such as weather issues, TV concerns, those confounded FIFA windows and the ongoing push to make the regular season ever more relevant.

And don’t forget, some of the owners will certainly want to expand the playoff field once Orlando, NYCFC, Atlanta and LAFC join up. Please, please, please, you MLS deciders, when you get the urge to expand beyond 10 playoff teams … conquer it!

MLS eventually will settle into something steady. And rest assured, it certainly will be the worst system out there … except for all the others. It just seems that with MLS playoffs, like governments, you look for the least imperfect process – the butt with the fewest pimples, if you will.

Photo credits, from top-to-bottom: 1.) Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park on December 7, 2013 (Ed Zurga/Getty Images); Robbie Brady (2L) of Ireland scores against the United States at the Aviva Stadium (Michael Steele/Getty Images).

WHERE TO WATCH