It’s nice to know that in this fast-paced, plugged-in, caffeinated world in which we live, there’s still a collective that believes in savoring every moment and taking its own sweet time.
That collective is known as Major League Soccer. In takes nearly eight months to complete a regular season. Now comes the 38 drawn-out days of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
MLS Cup is held aloft as the domestic game’s ultimate prize. Purists may say that’s debatable. However, if we want to grow the game, if we want to reel-in everyone even remotely interested in soccer (including the World Cup bandwagon types), we want them watching the MLS Cup Final. Only now, they need to arrange their own wake-up call.
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.
Keep in mind this is a Sounders fan writing. Our Rave are very much alive and kicking and out to accomplish the unprecedented Treble. We want folks to join us on this magic bus. Only problem is the driver keeps stripping the gears and lurching forward without releasing the parking brake. It’s the never-ending season.
There must be a better way. There must be a means to infuse some energy into the postseason, to attract new viewers rather than losing even your loyalists. The MLS Cup Playoffs cry out for some momentum.
There are mitigating factors, of course, FIFA dates chief among them. But international interruptions are not the problem. Those breaks occur every year and either the playoffs can conclude beforehand or that pause can provide an interlude prior to the final.
Neither is the preliminary knockout round nor the two-leg format that follows. No, the root cause of this lethargic, late autumn shuffle is leadership’s aversion to playing midweek matches.
Wednesday night was once the staple of North American soccer summer. Once the NASL expanded beyond 20-22 matches, it was necessary to play multiple games each week in order to fit all the fixtures between April and August.
Originally, MLS did likewise. During their inaugural season, the Galaxy played 10 midweek matches. This past regular season, Sounders FC played four. L.A. began the playoffs on September 25 (it was a 32-match schedule), Seattle started the postseason five weeks later, on November 2.
Now, a word about midweek games: Owners, by and large, loathe them. People work until 5 or 6 o’clock, fight traffic to get home, then perhaps again approaching the stadium. Result: Smaller crowds, they say. But as MLS matures, as struggling markets make gains, and when New England finds an urban home as opposed to the hinterlands, maybe it’s time to take another look. Or not.
Perhaps the choice is not so much Wednesday versus Saturday, but Wednesday on warm summer evenings versus Saturdays in October when the kids are now playing and the weather has turned wet and windy. Saturdays in summer might be just as problematic as work nights: How many want to cut short their time at the beach to get back for the game?
Even if we agree to set aside the reluctance to play midweek games during the regular season, there is the issue of a postseason stuck in neutral.
In a perfect world, no futbol fan has time to write stuff like this. But in MLS we …have…lots…of…time…to…write…or worse…drift toward other interests. Like basketball, hockey, college football, NFL football, Thanksgiving football and conference championship football.
When positioned and played out in proper fashion, league playoffs should build to a crescendo. More and more fans pile on. Suddenly MLS starts gaining in stature as the season culminates.
That’s part of the World Cup attraction; there are matches every day at the outset. The entire tournament takes 31 days. Remember those two rest days prior to the quarterfinals and your withdrawal symptoms?
Promotion playoff legs in England are played three days apart.
The players can handle it. There’s no physical reason the playoffs can’t push on with similar pace.
The old NASL put the pedal to the metal, and so did MLS initially.
In 1977 the original Sounders played six playoff games, including Soccer Bowl, in a span of 18 days. That was pre-online ticketing, obviously. Still teams were selling tickets at a rapid clip: 35,000 for Minnesota, 77,000 in New York. The Sounders sold 56,000 on six days notice. Even when Seattle struggled in attendance, in 1982, playoff fever took hold; 29,000 seats sold in two days for the semifinal deciding leg.
MLS played twice weekly playoff games in the first few seasons to mixed results. Over the past 10 years they are spacing matches a week apart. While crowds are generally up. Columbus, with a week to prepare for New England, sold 9,000 tickets. Rising to the occasion, Dallas, on four days notice, pulled over 16,000 for Seattle. It looked good on TV and, furthermore, it’s encouraging for both the club and the league’s long run.
It also sufficient encouragement for MLS to take another look at putting the playoffs back on the fast track.
Gain a few more midweek games during the summer and suddenly the playoffs are starting in early to mid-October. By making Wednesdays part of postseason, it generates excitement and that, in turn generates crowds and ratings. It can capture the attention not only of the qualifying teams’ fans, but those on the fringe.
No more slow-motion postseason. Playoff fever should be contagious. MLS Cup should be a frenzied sprint to the finish.