This solution is based on a couple of premises:
- The MLS will keep conferences. I think this may be necessary, at least for now, in order to build rivalries, some of which will naturally develop over time based on geography, but in some cases aren't there yet.
- The MLS current expansion to 20 teams will not come with a concurrent expansion of the number of playoff teams, which will remain at 8.
- MLS will maintain a balanced schedule, playing each team home and away.
So the first part of the solution--change the conference names. The NFL has the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. MLB has the American and National Leagues. Now, of course, each of those conferences and leagues have geographic divisions and spread over the country, but I don't see anything wrong in renaming the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference as the National or American Conference--if only to avoid the confusion of year's past when New York Red Bulls were the Western Conference Champion or San Jose or Colorado being the Eastern Conference Champion. You would have and American Conference Champ and a National Conference Champ.
Second, the winners of each conference would be automatically in the playoffs (so winning the conference remains important) and they would have home field advantage. Then the next six best teams in MLS, regardless of conference, are in the playoffs and would be seeded 3 through 8 based on their record. the Conference winners would be seeded one-two with the Supporter's Shield Winner being the number one seed. So, this year, L.A. won the Supporter's Sheild, but NY would be second seed because they won the Eastern Conference even though Real Salt Lake had a better points total.
Third, the first round play-offs, called the Quarter-Finals or Round of 8, but not conference semi-finals, are a home-and-home series with aggregate goals. I like the fact that MLS does not use the away goals rule as I think it opens the games up a little. The teams would play #1 v. #8, #2 v. #7, #3 v. #6, and #4 v. #5. The winners of these series would be would advance to the next round.
In the Semi-Finals, the teams would be re-seeded, with the team with the best recorded seed first and so forth. Then the reseeded #1 v. #4 and #2 v. #3. This is the big change taken from the NHL. Re-seeding would add a dimension to the playoffs that may add some excitement and you have a better chance of having the best two teams in the Final. This round would also be a two game, home-and-home series, but played on the Wed.-Saturday and Thrusday-Sunday after the Quarter Finals. The top two seeds get home field advantage, playing at home in the second game.
The MLS Cup Final would be played as it is now, in a fixed venue. I would like to see MLS start thinking about venues outside of MLS venues or cities. I think a game in St. Louis, Atlanta or Baltimore would be fantastic and probably well attended.
If you had implemented this idea in 2010, the playoffs would have looked like this. I am assuming LA Galaxy won the coin toss just for this example:
The Playoff table would look like this:
- L.A. Galaxy (Supporter's Sheild Winner
- New York Red Bulls (Conference winner)
- Real Salt Lake (56 Points, +25 Goal Difference)
- FC Dallas (50 Points, +17 Goal Difference)
- Columbus Crew (50 Points, +6 Goal Difference)
- Seattle Sounders FC (48 Points, +4 Goal Difference)
- Colorado Rapids (46 Points, +12 Goal Difference)
- San Jose Earthquakes (46 Points, +1 Goal Difference)
#1 L.A. Galaxy v. #8 San Jose Earthquakes
#2 N.Y Red Bull v. #7 Colorado Rapids
#3 Real Salt Lake v. #6 Seattle Sounders
#4 FC Dallas v. #5 Columbus Crew
The biggest change would be that after each playoff round--even if MLS expands to more than 20 teams or expands the play-off field, the remaining teams should be reseeded and therefore, you don't have a fixed bracket as we do now. Who knows how the 2010 playoffs would have come out, but I think that Real Salt Lake would probably still be in. It is very possible that New York and Columbus would still have been eliminated, but with a playoff format like the one I propose, the better teams will usually rise to the top and we would probably have the most exciting teams still in the playoffs.
Generally, I think this set up would be more effective at producing the best teams to make to the final.