My Ideas On How MLS Should Decide A Champion

With the MLS Cup Playoffs on the verge of beginning, I’m going to embark on a post here that tends to evoke some debate. The diversity of opinions when it comes to how the top-flight of American soccer should decide their champion is vast. You could be a straight single table, most points takes all lover. Maybe you like the geographical conferences and a playoff system. Perhaps you even like what the current format has done. I’m not trying to say anyone’s method is poor, I just wanted to put out there an idea I’ve been developing, and would like feedback as well as input.

I am a guy who likes aspects of both systems. I like the fact that, in American sports, you have to prove yourself in that ultimate winner-take-all match. In the Big 4 sports, you don’t get to lose the last three matchdays and still back into a title based on early-season form.

MLS Cup Playoffs Start Wednesday

Of course, I also like that the regular season means almost everything in the European leagues. Every team plays the other twice in most leagues. It’s more about consistency than sneaking into a Wild Card slot and getting hot in the last two months.

So, here it goes. This would be what I would suggest as a hybrid method for deciding the Major League Soccer Champion each season.


First off, there would be an absolute championship match. If MLS likes my idea, they can call it whatever they want. But this would be the makeup:

Ultimate MLS Championship Game = Supporter’s Shield Winner vs. MLS Cup Winner.

This has probably been suggested before. I have a tweak to the MLS Cup though, and it would coincide with the end of the regular season.

Within the last month or so of the season’s close, you begin the MLS Cup. Every MLS franchise gets a shot in my format, though. Seeding would occur based on a single table based on a midseason point total. Let’s take 2012 for example: with 19 teams, #14 plays #19, 15 plays 18, 16 plays 17. Then from there, you would have a typical tournament bracket. The Cup matches would not be home-and-away aggregate, but if the higher seed is drawn at their stadium, the match would move to the away club’s venue (a la the FA Cup). Extra time and penalties would then be used to decide a second draw.

Ideally for me, the Semifinals of the MLS Cup tournament would be scheduled the weekend following the season’s completion.

Now you might say, “So what if the Supporter’s Shield Winner is in the Semifinals?” That team would be removed from the playoffs (since they would be automatically in the Championship Game), and would be replaced by the team with the highest final point total not left in the brackets. It wouldn’t absolutely ensure the 2nd best team in the Semifinals; in fact, a team who had earned the Supporters Shield early could theoretically tank their match to try to keep a rival out. This gives a great incentive for every team to give their all.

From there, you have your Semifinals, and Finals, all within two weeks of the end of the season. The winner of the MLS Cup would advance to the Ultimate MLS Championship Game to face the Supporter’s Shield holder. That match would then determine the ultimate victor, preferably on a neutral field.


Obviously, one ramification of this would be that Conferences wouldn’t be necessary. Personally, I don’t think the league is large enough for conferences to be that effective. Look at the current state, with a proliferation of higher-quality teams in the Western Conference. I just think that there aren’t enough benefits of Conference designations at this point. You hate the teams nearest you, because you can easily travel to their venue and tell them how much you dislike them.

What would be the downside? In my mind, one thing would be the inherent ability of a Cup-style competition to produce a less-than-deserving champion. Birmingham City in last season’s Carling Cup is a perfect example. The counterargument would come from the fact that many of the top teams sat their best players in early rounds, thus cheapening the tournament. In the case of my suggested MLS Cup, there would be no reason for a top team to blow it off, even if they were doing well in the Supporter’s Shield competition. If you get knocked out of that Cup, your season is over (unless you are top of the table).

Another downpoint could be that it makes the final few weeks of the season pointless for a lot of teams. But wouldn’t you say that the last 2 weeks have been pretty meaningless for LA? How about Vancouver? New England? Even in the current state there are issues of games being afterthoughts or lacking drama.

The other thing that would be troublesome would be an already stuffed season fixture list. Between the CONCACAF Champions League, US Open Cup, and midsummer friendlies, it’s tough to work out the logistics perfectly. The “MLS Cup” portion would be held at the same time as the CCL, and that would make for some dicey moments, especially if you had 2nd legs.

I’d like to hear your ideas. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of places for criticism. The point of this isn’t to state that I think this is perfect; what I hope is that this may allow some to consider alternatives. I don’t think that Major League Soccer considers the current format the end of the road. As long as we continue to strive for the best method, we’ll hopefully edge closer.

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22 Responses to My Ideas On How MLS Should Decide A Champion

  1. Tom says:

    Sorry, too complicated. What needs to happen is bigger emphasis on
    US Open Cup, coupled with increased exposure of the CCL. The reason
    Europe doesn’t have playoffs, or need playoffs, is because of, for
    example, Englands best teams play in FA Cup (our open cup),
    Europa/Champions league (CCL), Carling Cup (another USOC), and
    regular season. With that amount of competition and that amount of
    games played, only the best teams can compete for the top spot in
    the regular season and therefore cannot “back into” a title, as you
    put it and the winner usually is the best team. First thing the MLS
    needs is time to build its own legends. It’s such a new league but
    already there are pieces in place that suggest this is happening.
    We know that the Sounders and Fire bring their a-game to the USOC,
    while RBNY and others blow it off. Teams are starting to have
    identities in such a way that these competitions are gaining
    respect and viewership. Look at RSL in the CCL earlier and the
    prospect of what LA, Sounders and Toronto could do over the coming
    months. With these competitions gaining importance, the regular
    season, I think will also gain importance and meaning, as well as
    the CCL berth baring USOC and MLS Cup competitions. If these four
    competitions become equally important than a “true champion” will
    become apparent without complicated and (sorry) logistically
    nightmarish additional tournament. You’d be better off just having
    the Supporters Shield winner play the USOC winner and avoid that
    extra tourny, while ditching the MLS Cup. However, I kind of like
    the American system for the MLS Cup and would rather see it stay.
    Keep the system as is and continue to emphasize the importance of
    the CCL and we should see a true champion crowned at the end of
    each regular season.

  2. Ivan says:

    Get rid of the stupid playoffs. Regular season champion is the MLS
    Champion. End of story. Get rid of the stupid stupid conferences.
    TV ratings and attendance in playoffs and “MLS Cup” plummet every
    year. Wake up. Do not make MLS into another zombie-like
    professional sports league like MLB, NFL, etc. ,the leagues where
    the big sponsors tell you when to cheer, what to cheer, when to
    take a commercial break! Wake up, people. Americanizing and
    zombifying the beautiful game in this country will only lead to
    indifference and questions as to why US loses to “superpowers” like
    Panama. Time for Don to go; he has reached his capacity as
    commissioner of the league. A football person must take over, not
    another NFL clone.

    • Tim says:

      Except for Colorado, all those stadiums were quite full, and I’ve
      never watched better group of games since the early champions
      league last year. Americanizing the game is why there are

  3. broom_wagon says:

    I don’t know what Brazil and Argentina do but it seems Mexico has
    some sort of playoffs system to to decide who is the winner, the
    first eight teams at the end of the year play in a tournament from
    what I understand : see
    So, this is not totally just an “American thing”. Mexico’s league
    is pretty good I think and if they do this, I don’t see why we
    should style ourselves after Europe, after all, the EPL has
    basically two Cups they play for, the Carling League Cup and the FA
    Cup, these are still in a sense, playoffs. League Cup just for the
    teams in the league. The NFL definitely would not be the same
    without the playoffs, that one weekend with 4 playoff games is
    excellent, those must be the semi-finals.

    • Robert says:

      In Mexico, playoffs were initiated to finance lower divisions along
      with giving extra revenue for smaller clubs. It also makes sense in
      Mexico to have playoffs because they play short season tournaments
      of 17 games. The problem with MLS is it keeps changing the format
      and how the champion is crowned.

  4. This year or next year is the last season in a small window that
    started in 2009 in the league’s history that the schedule will be
    balanced or very nearly balanced. When the number of teams in the
    league forces the end of this, the supporters shield should be
    meaningless. Apart from your other negatives, doesn’t this also
    pretty much kill the regular season for a team once that team is
    out of the running for best record? For too many teams, this would
    be too early in the season and I don’t think the system would be
    conducive for a pair of nations trying to grow the game. This
    season, it should have been top 8 in playoffs, straight seeding, 2
    legged first round (the Don wants every playoff team to get a home
    game), single game afterward. After this year, it really depends on
    the schedule.

  5. dicks r us says:

    this doesnt really have much in common with this thread but i think
    we should give a champions league spot to the supporters shield
    runner up. chances are they will be a better team than the mls cup
    runners up. ok? ok.

  6. Tetsuo says:

    I am not at all against playoffs but my big problem with them is
    that they make absolutely no sense if we have a balanced regular
    season schedule. Until the number of clubs forces the schedule to
    go unbalanced (which I think should not happen under 24 clubs), I
    think we should split the regular and the post seasons into
    distinct competitions: We would have the MLS Championship (current
    regular season) and a League Cup right afterward (post season). The
    10 or 12 best teams would qualify for the League Cup. I already
    hear you think: “But that’s exactly what is going on right now.
    Your changes are just semantics!” Well, it’s quite true. But it is
    a simple way to have the Supporter’s Shield officially recognized
    as the MLS Champion, which would make the MLS much more credible to
    the rest of the World, and keep a post season at the same time. The
    top two teams in the MLS Championship would qualify for the CCL, as
    well as the winner of the League Cup.

  7. dan says:

    i’ve said this a million times. Call the supporters shield winner
    the MLS Champions. Then have a post season tournament called the
    MLS Cup. Americans get what they want and the purists get what they
    want too. You can then have a Community Shield between the two next
    season. MLS Champions need a LOT more bonus for finishing end of
    the season with highest points. It’s the single hardest thing to do
    and you get no reward for it

  8. BamaMan says:

    Good God. Why do soccer fans in the US so often feel the need to
    create insanely complicated formats that the most diehard MLS fans
    cannot understand, much less the average American sports viewer?
    Here’s a simple suggestion – follow the incredibly successful
    league South of the Border (minus Apertura and Clausura). Drop the
    name MLS Cup. Just call it the MLS Finals or the MLS Championship.
    Single table. Top 8 teams qualify. Teams seeded #1-#8. Two-legged
    all the way through the final. Higher seeded team gets second leg
    at home. No away goals rule. Tied on aggregate at end of second
    leg, you go to two 15-minute extra time periods, followed by PKs as
    per World Cup. A week or so later have the US Open Cup Final at a
    neutral venue as the big season ending neutral site sponsorfest MLS
    wants the MLS Cup to be.

    • Earl Reed says:

      I don’t think it’s all that complicated, but I probably used too many words to describe it. Basically it’s similar to splitting the regular season and the MLS Cup into two different events, then playing off the winners of both events. The only thing that would make it slightly complicated would be dropping the Supporter’s Shield winner at the semis and replacing with the best team outside the semi’s.

      But honestly, aside from having an “endgame scenario” that fairly decides a champion, the main factor in MLS’s decision on the endgame is financial. And that’s understandable, this league can’t sustain without attendance and viewership. I do think that the Lamar Hunt USOC remains a very untapped resource for US Soccer/MLS.

      • BamaMan says:

        I agree that the endgame is financial, but in order for any format
        MLS has to be a financial success, it has to be simple enough that
        both soccer fans and sports fans at large can understand it. It has
        to make sense to them as a way to determine a champion. I do not
        think your proposal meets that test. I believe that an 8-team
        format with two legs all the way through would allow for 14 playoff
        matches in total. The current 10-team format only has 13. And I
        tend to think that the MLS Cup Final would be a much more
        profitable and entertaining venture if it was played as a
        home-and-away two-legged final. If there is anything the explosion
        of growth in popularity for the World Cup should have taught us, it
        is that Americans will watch a knockout soccer tournament on
        television. The regular season has to have some meaning, but we
        don’t take it as determinative of the champion in American sports
        and they don’t in Mexico, either. The Supporter’s Shield is a fine
        reward for most points in the regular season. We don’t have a
        secondary domestic cup, so winning the SS, the MLS Cup, and the
        Open Cup is a fine way to win a Treble. MLS has hit a plateau now
        that most of the teams public money for stadium construction is at
        a premium and expansion opportunities have slowed. They have to do
        something at some point to put the league on more permanent

  9. Ryan Sandidge says:

    I like where your idea is heading. I totally agree that the playoff
    system has it’s own unique intrigue, especially because it is a
    richly American system. At the same time a single table champion
    needs to be given higher honor. A hybrid of the two is the perfect
    solution, maybe Garber will read this and give it some thought.

  10. Robert says:

    Earl, I like the idea and where your head is at but i’m still a
    huge fan of how Mexico handles its playoffs. I think there are too
    many spinning plates for MLS right now and it needs to focus on
    getting butts in the seats and eyeballs watching TVs. The USOC is
    probably the coolest tournament in the United States and MLS could
    bank on the fact that amateurs could potentially win the cup. MLS
    could work with ESPN on doing a few 30 minute shows on amateur
    clubs who are going to compete in USOC. Hollywood the shit out of
    those guys. Imagine Yankees being beat out by a beer league team?!
    That’s how cool the USOC is.

  11. Robert says:

    What if MLS Champions (Supporters Shield) gain automatic entry into
    MLS Cup Finals? Single table with 2-9 qualifying for the playoffs.
    This will give fans of MLS Champions a month to buy
    tickets/flights/hotels to the Cup Final.

    • The original Tom says:

      Too long a break for the players, though. Just have a MLS Cup
      Champions and League Champions every year (and you can still have
      Open Cup as well). Different patches and different color game ball
      for the following season. You can still have this when the schedule
      goes slightly unbalanced next year. And have a special patch and
      game ball color that is rewarded in those rare years when a team
      wins both the MLS Shield and Cup.

  12. Charles says:

    Supporters Sheild will be dead in 5 years.Just be done with it now
    MLS. Guys will whine and cry, guys may even drop, you will survive.
    Unbalanced schedule next year already. Three years ago Columbus won
    it by a couple of points, with an easier schedule than the
    Sounders. That is just stupid.

  13. S04th says:

    The MLS playoffs are an absurd bit of “engineering excitement”
    through scheduling in lieu of quality or need. It just adds to the
    contrived nature of the league. MLB and the NFL grew into their
    current playoff formats. Wildcards were unknown before these
    leagues hit 30 or so teams (28 teams in the NFL in 1978, 30 in MLB
    in 1995) divided into six divisions rather than four. MLS barely
    has two divisions. Just play east champ versus west winner in a
    home and away and have done with it until the structure of the
    league dictates a more complex playoff. Or, if you must have a
    post-season, emulate NBA and NHL playoffs. Just seed 8 teams (given
    MLS’s size) and let them have at it.

  14. blag says:

    As nice as it would be to keep it, the balanced schedule is going
    away starting next year. It is really hard to move 19 or 20 + teams
    around the US for a balanced schedule and is probably not
    economically viable for quite a while until the mls popularity
    picks up a quite a bit more. I think your idea is decent, but I
    also think it congests the schedule too much at the end of the
    season. It also kinda cheapens the regular season games to some
    extent because teams would start tanking those games pretty early
    and focus only on the tournament games. Also with the unbalanced
    schedule coming up, I don’t think this format works either because
    the teams are not playing on the same scales and thus you cannot
    use the point system to determine fairly who is the supporters
    shield winner. I once thought that you could do a double “ladder”
    system. I will go ahead and explain, but I do recognize that even
    this system fails now because it would only work with balanced
    schedules for the seeding. If there were an appropriate seeding
    system, I would still like the playoff system it provides. This
    system works by having 2 ladders, east and west (could be modified
    for a single ladder variation as well if everything was a single
    table). You are seeded on this ladder based on where you finish in
    your conference. How this system works is the team lowest in the
    ladder plays the next highest player in the same ladder. So lets
    take this year as an example. If we take the eastern conference it
    would look like this: 1) SKC 2) Hou 3) Phi 4) Colum 5) NY 6) Chi 7)
    D.C. 8) Tor 9) N.E. New England would play Toronto. The winner of
    that match plays D.C. the winner of that match plays chicago. The
    winner of that match plays columbus. This continues until the
    kansas city game. The same thing occurs on the other ladder for the
    western conference. Lastly, the eastern and western ladder winners
    play for the cup (the championship game). Essentially, a lower seed
    can win, but they have to win a lot more times to prove they are
    worthy of being champions. Two of the major faults of this system
    is that it needs an appropriate seeding system to work, and you do
    not necessarily garauntee the two best teams meet at the top of the
    ladders. The top teams will most likely be the two current best
    teams, not necessarily best teams from the season. Another fault is
    being able to do this over a short period of time without making it
    impossible for a low seeded team to really climb up the ladder.
    Anyways, if anyone has any thoughts on this, I would not mind
    hearing them.

  15. Charles says:

    Troll comment of the week…………………………… Ding
    dong, the witch is dead, the boring witch is
    dead…………………………….Kill The SS and Long Live
    Garber: “We are looking at creating a format that could take
    advantage of what we think are a number of key rivalries and
    understanding that it will be difficult to be balanced, meaning it
    will be difficult to have every team play each other once
    throughout the year. It’s probably too early for me to comment on
    any of the details.”……………………………. Unbalance
    schedule, more regional games next year. Next step make the
    playoffs epic instead of a small after
    thought……………….The NBA has like 5 months of playoffs !!!

  16. JMad4 says:

    Now I am a noob to all this soccer business, I only started
    watching during the World Cup. However, in my opinion, MLS is not
    big enough for an Elaborate playoff with lots of teams in it. I
    could do without Conferences for any league that has less than 24
    teams. My noobie suggestion is this: Single Table, Team with the
    Best Overall Record gets Supporter’s Shield. (rename it the MLS
    Shield). MLS Shield Winner gets an automatic berth in the MLS
    Championship game. They don’t have to play in the Playoffs at all.
    the other berth is determined by the MLS Cup. Top 6 non MLS Shield
    Teams(maybe 8) in playoffs. Best of 3 series each round. Better
    Record = Home field Advantage= 2 Home Games in the Best of 3.
    alternatively, Knockout Round style for the MLS Cup. MLS Cup Winner
    vs MLS Shield Winner in the Championship. Best of 3, MLS Shield
    gets Home Field Advantage. Winner is MLS Champions.

  17. blag says:

    JMad4 The problem is that the league does not currently have the
    capability of maintaining a balanced schedule unless MLS franchises
    were to drastically boost up their profitability. By the time that
    happens, a conference set up with playoffs will most likely be
    considered a norm here and the outcry for a balanced schedule and
    single table will most likely be a lot less than now. Without a
    balanced schedule (which the league has already said would not be
    used for much longer), the use of a single table is meaningless.
    This is because teams are not being evenly compared since some
    teams play other teams more often (that could be weaker or
    stronger) and you do not play everyone home and away when you do
    play other teams. This means the supporters shield becomes biased
    to a strong team that plays weaker teams around them constantly.
    So, the supporters shield will become meaningless if (when) the
    league goes to an unbalanced schedule.

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