MLS’s Playoff System Puts Red Bulls at a Disadvantage


HANOVER, N.J. – Is Major League Soccer’s playoff structure fundamentally flawed?

It appears that way. The top two seeds in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference could be knocked out before the conference finals with all four teams behind after losing the first leg away from home.

Included among these four top teams are the New York Red Bulls, who were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this year. The Red Bulls host the Impact Sunday in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals after dropping a 1-0 result on the road last week.

It is not exactly a reward for doing well in the regular season.

The playoffs are different than other American sports that utilize a “best of” approach. The NFL that has a single game at the higher seed; instead, MLS utilizes a “two-game aggregate series” where the lower seed hosts the first game. As seen last year where Columbus Crew SC (No. 2 in the Eastern Conference) and the Portland Timbers (No. 3 in the Western Conference) made MLS Cup, it is an advantage to play at home in the first game in the two-game playoff leg. Both teams beat the top seed in the conference finals last year.

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The lower seed gets the chance to set the tone of the playoff series before going on the road in the second leg. They very often do so with the advantage of a win or a strong result from their home first leg.

This puts the higher seed on the proverbial back foot, which isn’t an advantage for teams that do well in the regular season. Consider that the lower seeds this past weekend in MLS all won at home and it is obvious that hosting the first leg is quite the advantage.

Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan admits that the current playoff structure may not be the best scenario for teams who achieve success in the regular season. He was reluctant to talk about changes to the playoff series with the Red Bulls currently in the postseason.

“I would think it would be more advantageous to play the first game at home. Preferably you get a lead and then you go on the road and try to protect,” Kljestan said Thursday. “Not where you go on the road and lose and have to come home and chase the game as a higher seed. That’s my opinion.”

And while a one-off game at the higher seed might be advantageous and the ideal way to reward a team for regular-season success, Kljestan sees the model used in Mexico as another option.

In the Mexican league come playoff time, a two-leg series that ends in a tie on aggregate goes to the higher seed. This ensures that a top seed that has proven itself over the course of the regular season has a distinct advantage against teams earning a home result then bunkering down in their away leg.

This means that the lower seed has to beat the higher seed over two legs to advance. In essence, they have to prove themselves more than the top seed.

For a team like the Red Bulls that last year won the Supporters’ Shield and was knocked out a game shy of MLS Cup, it might just reward consistency in the regular season.

“So you can’t just be a low seed and come in and sit back and try to counterattack. You have to come in and try to win the game,” Kljestan said.

“And then you get rewarded more for doing well in the regular season; in case of a tie, the higher seed moves on.”

If MLS doesn’t care about the regular season, then the current scenario will do just fine. But the league should want the best teams in the league over the course of a tough regular season in the MLS Cup final as it presumably should be the best showcase for a national audience.

But that’s just logic talking.