Expanding Major League Soccer’s playoffs is a terrible idea

In the helter-skelter swirl of the huge soccer news day two weeks ago, one item got short shrift in the discussion cycle: Major League Soccer expanded its playoffs by two teams, from 10 to 12. And it’s a terrible idea.

It’s not just rotten for the reasons you might suspect, that it further diminishes the relevance of the regular season. That reason alone should be enough to steer clear of the change, but this is also a poor choice for a less obvious reason. It’s a bad idea that has league deciders working in direct opposition to their own, oft-stated ambitions. Expanding the playoffs will negatively affect overall league quality.

How, exactly, will adding two more playoff teams chisel away at quality? Follow me here.

Not quite 10 years ago I had a conversation with Simo Valakari, a Finnish international who defined professionalism. His team, FC Dallas, was about to go play at Kansas City. It was April, six months before the postseason, yet he was straining to convince me that the match was “massive.” The player that he was, Valakari was really trying to make the case. Every match was “massive,” and that’s fair enough, as an individual motivational tactic.

Trouble is, there is no rational way anyone could truly describe a match in April at that time in MLS as “massive.” There were 12 teams in the league that year; eight made the playoffs. (That was not far from the truly eye-rolling, comical days when eight of 10 made the playoffs, challenging the very notion that these were actually “playoffs” and not something closer an all-comers tournament on the back of a highly irrelevant regular season.)

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The hard truth is that many matches simply didn’t matter back then. Players, no dummies, knew that any random game in April, May, June, July, etc., was highly unlikely to be the one that cost their team a playoff spot. There was just way too much wiggle room, too much latitude to get away with a few bad performances. Until the very stretch run, no one loss would ever prevent a team from changing course, ramping up the intensity and making a title run.

That hard reality went a long way to ensuring a painfully slow progression in overall standard of play. There were too few games that mattered; too few contests where the league had to put its best foot forward. That’s knife’s edge of tension just didn’t exist for the majority of matches.

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It’s simple: players improve when they are pushed. They learn and evolve when matches truly matter, when something concrete is on the line. Pressure squeezes more and better from everyone, and teams improve collectively as individuals push one another (not just on game day, but all week in training) to achieve the stated goals. Everyone gets better when true failure lurks, and failing to make the playoffs has always been the original sin of Major League Soccer.

Yes, that is pretty much every MLS team’s primary, minimum goal each year – to make the playoffs. As a target, it’s as common as bags of practice balls around the training grounds, but when you make that target easier to nail, players (and clubs) simply don’t have the same incentive to drive themselves as relentlessly. They need to feel that pressure, from media, from supporters, from the suits who are selling tickets and sponsorships for their very livelihood.

To be clear, MLS isn’t creating a big dumpster fire out of league quality here; let’s not get carried away. But expanding the playoffs will dent the overall standard of play, and why would league leaders do anything that reverses such a positive trend of the last several years – a period that has unarguably seen the standard of play rise steadily?

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Turning back to MLS history once again: Things got better in the league as the percentage of clubs that failed to qualify for the postseason slowly increased. Come 2010, half the field was excluded from the playoffs. By that time, matches in March, April and May, etc. began to matter more. Those contests did have some bearing on final league standings.

Clearly, there were other reasons for a standard that climbed dependably; rising salary caps and a rosier financial outlook allowed teams to go fetch better talent. And quality will continue to rise as MLS keeps upping the ante on imports, both at the highest end (think Thierry Henry, Kaká, Frank Lampard, etc.) and at the medium-high end (think Michael Parkhurst, Kei Kamara, Pedro Morales, etc.).

But there’s a limit on this in-flow. Unless we’re going all-in financially and making this thing a free agent free for all – just throw away the salary cap and risk league ruin with an all-out arms race that would make MLS look like the Premier League in its virtual two-tier system – a limit exists on how much talent we can import or lure home.

At some point, the real bulk of the league, the lunch pail bunches, have to get better. For the league to truly increase in quality top to bottom, everyone has to improve; places 5-15 on the roster have to find their way to betterment. They have to find their way from high quality hamburger to steak.

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This latest playoff expansion won’t help. This year, 60 percent of MLS teams will make the playoffs, a noticeable uptick from last year’s 52.6 percent. Plus, it takes MLS further from this country’s most popular league; only 38 percent of NFL teams qualify for the postseason. In the NBA and NHL, it’s 53 percent.

Players say it all the time: You just need to make the playoffs, and anything can happen from there. The truth is even more stark: teams can truly stink it up for half a season. So long as they get it going by summer, they’ll be fine. Just two years ago (2012 season) teams ranked eighth and ninth in final points (the Galaxy and Houston) advanced to MLS Cup. Just get in, baby – anything can happen from there.

So the unstated front office message to supporters this spring and into the summer is: “Buy your tickets, guys! And cheer hard! But if we lose … well, don’t sweat it too much. There’s time.”

Too bad, too. Like most MLS fans, I enjoy seeing a league that works constantly, and in every way, to get better. Instead, a league that rightly prioritizes elevating of its standard, with a stated goal of becoming one of the world’s top competitions, just made a choice that will hurt that cause.

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