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Nixing the away goals rule isn't enough: MLS should go a new way on playoffs

Rather than mimicking the Champions League, the MLS Cup playoffs should copy the format of an even bigger soccer tournament.

For anyone hoping against hope that MLS Commissioner Don Garber would announce at his annual State of the League address last week that the league would be moving away from playoffs: first, check your meds; and second, go read Steve Goff's column on why playoffs are great for MLS. Look at the jubilation coming from Oregon and the despair and anger coming from Ohio, and tell me playoffs don't matter. Then go through whatever stages of grief you need to get to acceptance. Playoffs aren't going anywhere.

What the Don did let slip, though, is that the league will reexamine their relatively recent adoption of the away goals rule. For the uninitiated, the rule makes the first tiebreaker in any two-leg playoff series the number of goals scored on the road. It doesn't apply to one-off rounds (i.e. the play-in round and the final), and it doesn't apply once the teams enter extra time following the second leg of a series. But it does prevent some series from ever entering extra time, and it therefore reduces the specter of penalties.

But, the rule also reduces what little advantage there is to hosting the second leg, as the higher seed traditionally does. For me, this is more of a problem with the two-leg format and less of one with the away goals rule. The rule adds a lot of drama and allows a single goal to turn a series on its head, which I'd argue does more good than harm within the confines of the playoff format.

It's that playoff format where the real problem lies.

Putting aside the fact that 12 of 20 teams make the postseason, the two-leg, aggregate goals format leaves a lot to be desired. It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, but it destroys the concept of home field advantage (away goals rule or no) and reduces the value of the regular season. It changes the nature of the game played the rest of the year by turning a 90-minute game into a 180-minute contest, affecting strategies and tactics. It lacks the romance of both the Game 7s and the single elimination games of other American leagues. It's also really annoying to explain to newcomers to the sport and the league.

Personally, I was hoping to hear Don Garber talk about nixing the two-leg aggregate goals format altogether. What I'd love to see is something more adventurous and more compelling - something like Brian Straus's group play proposal from 2010. (Note: Unfortunately, Straus's original piece for AOL no longer exists online, so I have to link to a Forbes piece by another writer, who quotes the original liberally.)

In that system, the top four teams from each conference (most likely following a play-in round for seeds 3-6, like we have today) would be put into two groups for three games of round robin play. Every game would be at the home of the higher seed. So if you win your conference, you're not going on the road at all for this stage of the playoffs. If you squeak into the postseason, you've got to get results in hostile environments.

The top team in each group would host the second place team from the opposite group in the semifinal (preferably over a single, 90-minute match), and the winners would advance to the MLS Cup final.

As in any league with multiple conferences, there is always the chance that the two best teams are in the same conference. Perhaps the biggest advantage to Straus's proposal is that it would allow the two best teams a chance to meet in the final, even if they happen to be from the same time zone. After coming out of group play, they would go into separate semifinals and could come together again for MLS Cup. Never again would we have to worry about whether one conference final or the other is the "real" championship - there would be no more conference finals.

This year, it would have meant that D.C. United's win over New England to open the playoffs would have been the last game at RFK this year. And that's okay - maybe that consequence would have been enough impetus not to lose 5-0 to end the regular season. United would have had to visit New York, Columbus and Montreal. It's entirely possible - probable, even - that with three home games, the Red Bulls would have come out better in this format than the current one. Despite my hate for all things Metro, I'd still prefer this format over the status quo.

I may need to check my meds and go through some blaming and bargaining myself, though. Because I'm starting to realize that - as obviously a good idea as it is - group-based playoffs will never become reality in MLS.