Not a single No. 1 seed is left in the MLS Cup Playoffs as both the Eastern Conference winning New York Red Bulls and the Supporters Shield (and Western Conference) winning FC Dallas are out of the postseason already.
And it isn’t an anomaly but now a trend in the league as the playoff structure is hurting top seeds from advancing in the playoffs to MLS Cup. The system, to quote Donald Trump, isn’t rigged. But what it is is not exactly conducive for rewarding regular season success.
Last year the Red Bulls won the league in the regular season but were bounced by the No. 2 seed Columbus Crew SC in the conference finals. MLS uses a two-leg aggregate where the lower seed hosts the first leg. Very often, this lets them get a result, likely a win, and then bunker in at the higher seed’s stadium to advance through the playoffs. It wasn’t always this way in MLS.
This year in the conference semifinals, only one road team (the Seattle Sounders) managed a road win. The other three higher seeds all lost the first leg on the road. Only the Colorado Rapids, on penalty kicks, managed to come back from the deficit.
When MLS started in 1996, it utilized a three-game playoff series that assured a top seed would have at least two home legs should a series go to maximum games. Perhaps a return to this format or playing one game at the higher seed would better ensure that top teams in the regular season advance further in the playoffs.
“We were looking for a blend of fair competition with a commercial objective. Because we were competing with baseball (same season) we tried a variation,” former MLS commissioner Doug Logan tells Metro. “We got criticized for not going to home/home aggregate. Too American. We got a lot of flak in those days”
This year, both top seeds were knocked out before even the conference finals. The Colorado Rapids (No. 2 in the Western Conference) and Toronto FC (no. 3 in the Eastern Conference) are the highest ranking seeds in their respective brackets.
What this means is that a long regular season matters little under the current playoff structure. It also means that a league dependent on stars for marketing and television ratings often lacks them come MLS Cup time.
Last year’s MLS Cup was the aforementioned Crew, the No. 2 seed against eventual champion Portland Timbers (No. 3 in the Western Conference). It wasn’t a final that lacked star power.
It’s a growing concern. A No. 1 seed hasn’t been to the MLS Cup final since the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2011. That was also the last time that the Supporters Shield winner won MLS Cup.
“That's why we play. It's a promoter's dream,” Logan said. “I don't think the business side should put a heavy thumb on the scales.”
So something is clearly wrong when, for a fifth straight year not only will the best team in the league not be in MLS Cup but a single No. 1 seed won’t make it.