Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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What MLS should take from the NFL: Lessons on scheduling, playoff format and offseason buzz

At every turn, MLS takes cues from two camps. The first is following the customs of world soccer: transfer windows over trade deadlines, youth academies providing more sustained upside than college drafts, and some admittedly dull team branding. The second is that of American sports: salary caps over free spending, a league of 30 franchises instead of a 20-team cap, a lack of promotion and relegation between competitive rungs.

So often when we talk about how MLS can evolve, it’s skewed heavily in favor of the “global soccer” camp. That’s especially true when discussing the league’s labyrinth of roster rules, which is among its most Americanized features. Do we still need a salary cap to protect less-ambitious owners? Shouldn’t an MLS team be able to acquire a player from a rival using a transfer fee instead of allocation money? Do the multitude of rules help fans want to discuss transactions without a knowledge barrier? 

With the biggest game in American sports slated to kick off this Sunday, let’s lean the other direction. MLS still needs to grow its relevance both domestically and abroad, and no league commands attention in the United States like the NFL.  Considering eight MLS teams have shared ownership with an NFL team, with at least one of those teams appearing in each of the eight most recent Super Bowls, and MLS commissioner Don Garber was a long-time NFL employee before jumping to soccer, there’s plenty of experience to draw from among MLS ranks. Are there areas of its operation that could be pulled off by MLS?

These skew more toward off-field decisions and scheduling than the on-field product given the factors unique to each league and sport. However, I found three things that could easily be modified and adopted by MLS.

1) Postseason format sustains momentum

Throughout the entirety of American sports, few leagues tinker with their playoff format less often than the NFL.

It’s for good reason: the league hasn’t expanded its ranks in over two decades, when the launch of its 32nd franchise coincided with a competition reformatting that sees both conferences house four divisions. The framework allows for a seamless qualification process (each division winner, plus three wild card entrants), a first-round bye for the top team on each side of the bracket, and a re-seeded bracket to ensure the better teams hold home-field priority until the two reach the Super Bowl, held at a predetermined location.

On the complete opposite end of the stability spectrum sits MLS, a league that has had at least one expansion team debut in eight of its last nine seasons, dating back to 2015. The format has routinely undergone changes as the league has grown. Multi-game rounds were abandoned after 2018 but returned for 2023, now being used in the first round during the playoffs’ most lopsided matchups. MLS has ensured that at least half of its teams advance to the postseason in every year of the league’s operation, currently letting in 18 of the 29 clubs, or  62.1%. For comparison, the NFL lets 43.8% of its teams into the playoffs.

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Analyzing the new MLS first-round playoff format

The frequent changes have necessitated a nearly annual crash-course on the league’s format. This past season, each conference’s eighth best team hosted the ninth for a one-off play-in match before the best-of-three round of Seed 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5. While the quality of games fluctuated by the matchup, the first round dragged on for nearly two full weeks before an unfortunately timed FIFA international window — one which was announced years before MLS’ 2023 schedule was drafted.

The result was a postseason entirely devoid of built-up momentum. Depending on the conference, the gap between the end of the regular season and the second round — the conference semifinal — was either 35 or 36 days. That span alone ran a full week longer than the entirety of the group-stage-and-knockout Leagues Cup.

The result was a first round scored by a dirge instead of hype music. Seven of the eight series had the higher-seeded team advance to the conference semifinal, with only three series needing to return to the high seed’s stadium for a decisive third game. In all eight matchups, the team that won the first game ultimately won the series. In all eight matchups, the team with the better goal differential through two games advanced to the next round.

Why play extra games when it simply prolongs the inevitable?

Although the previous format meant fewer teams hosting playoff games, it was another way to reward the regular season’s best performers. Every single game had heightened stakes, and it was easy to sustain narratives and verve around a team’s run.

As for the NFL’s approach to hosting the title game at a predetermined, often neutral site… admittedly, I go back and forth on the merits of this from an MLS perspective.

Each of the last 13 MLS Cups have been hosted at one of the finalists’ stadiums rather than a predetermined destination. Of that baker’s dozen, the hosting team has lifted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy on 10 occasions, with another two hosts holding level before falling in a penalty shootout. To frame it another way: the only team to have won an MLS Cup final outright as an away team since 2011 was the 2015 Portland Timbers, besting Columbus at the old Mapfre Stadium.

The competitive advantage of hosting the final is undeniable, and it has largely made anointing the MLS Cup champion a foregone conclusion by the time the conference finals conclude. However… shouldn’t that be the point? Even if parity is prioritized in the league’s design, shouldn’t there be some incentive to be great in the regular season?

That fact, coupled with the ability to reward the best remaining team’s fan base with a title game in their friendly confines, keeps me from wanting to completely parrot the NFL’s approach. Given how closely the last MLS postseason resembled a slog, however, it’s one area that could be revisited to increase interest beyond qualifying teams’ fan bases by ensuring the bracket is easy to understand and sustains momentum from one round to the next.

2) Offseason sustains interest

The NFL is a finely tuned machine at this point, expanding beyond its four-month regular season and month-long postseason to make following the league’s operation a true 365-day cycle. Admittedly, it would be nearly impossible to take a carbon-copy approach with MLS. The NFL enjoys a relative monopoly when it comes to acquiring the highest quality football players, while MLS is competing with dozens of leagues in their sport’s second or third tier of competitions. Its rookie draft is far less prominent than the NFL’s, and far less impactful toward a franchise’s success or failure.

Still, there has to be some way to keep the discourse fed during the winter. The MLS offseason is a strange beast, lasting just over a month for the best teams but occupying over 10 full weeks if a team misses the MLS Cup Playoffs. By the time non-qualifiers reach the halfway point of their dormant period, the last two teams are still finishing off the season. For the most part, it leaves the month of November as no man’s land for over half of MLS’ teams.

The SuperDraft used to provide a mid-offseason touchpoint where every team’s sporting staff, as well as journalists and some fans, would congregate at a convention center. It led to some day-of intrigue as GMs and coaches worked the floor in hopes of trading up, weighing the merits of parting with a proven depth option to acquire a prospect in real-time. This is the stuff that heightens intrigue. Instead, the dwindling impact of the draft as academies became more productive and the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the SuperDraft becoming a conference call, taking even longer to execute and giving hosts less to work with during the MLS Season Pass stream.

Another sticking point on top of this all: MLS’ roster rules are really, really difficult to grasp in any way that’s productive to fueling conversation. Coupled with the opaqueness around how much allocation money each team has, you simply can’t credibly debate a team’s approach to roster-building the way you can in other sports. You may be tempted to ask a friend how Inter Miami will replace Facundo Farias after his season-ending ACL injury. That’s great — does your friend understand the designated player rule? Do they have a rough sense of the cap space Miami would have available for their preferred alternative, or whether they’d even hold the discovery rights over that player?

Do they even know about the Special Discovery Players rule? Did you know I didn’t make that up?

MLS would benefit from another “coming together” event like the SuperDraft was, and it could do so while hand-holding fans through understanding more of its rules. The latest CBA included a plan to phase out targeted allocation money, with those league-issued funds instead being added to team’s general allocation money totals. This year is the first where the total of GAM is higher than the waning discretionary TAM ledger.

Stick with me, we’re almost out of the weeds. Let’s hold the offseason board of governors meeting (already akin to the NFL’s annual owners meetings) while borrowing a template from the great American pastime.

Make a big show of it by bringing every team’s chief decision makers into a large hotel, MLB Winter Meetings style, in early January — concurrent with each team receiving access to that year’s general allocation money. On day one, the owners finalize that year’s roster rule changes, with MLS Season Pass equipped to explain the alterations to the core fan base. On days two, three, and four, the sporting staff of each club can mill about to catch up and (if they commit to the bit) make some transactions to keep their team front-and-center throughout the days of broadcasting.

It’s a no-brainer in terms of boosting the Apple streaming platform. Market it as the Great MLS GAMboree. For four days, you can have interviews with members of every club’s sporting staff run exclusively on MLS Season Pass. Between those segments, you can call upon experts to go over that year’s rule changes, look over free agent lists, talk about early offseason transactions, and give a natural moment to turn the calendar on the past season and begin looking ahead to the new season. If you’d like, we can hold the SuperDraft on day three or four to give young players their podium photo-op.

It also helps differentiate what MLS does from other soccer leagues, where the largest media frenzy is around last-minute moves as transfer windows come to a close. For a league that prides itself on stability and planning, give your teams a chance to show their homework before swinging some moves while the cameras are rolling and journalists are milling about the lobby. That feels like an offseason flagship event, doesn’t it?

3) Scheduling broadcast matchdays

I’ve run a lot of surveys since joining The Athletic in 2018, hoping to get the pulse of readers and the fan bases of clubs, leagues, and national teams. Nothing seems to unite respondents quite as much as the disdain for MLS’ match schedule in 2023, which had teams play the overwhelming majority of their games on Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m. local time.

It didn’t take long for fans to grow tired of the relatively fixed kickoff mandate. Ticket holders felt it monopolized their Saturday nights far more than in past years, yearning for greater variety. Those watching at home were bombarded with simultaneous kickoffs, noting in the survey that they were less enabled to watch additional MLS games beyond their preferred teams’ due to the lack of staggering. While it seemed like this congestion would help with the Apple TV whiparound show MLS 360, sometimes there was too much action for the show to be coherent.

Compare that to the NFL, whose schedule borders on being a pillar of American culture. A Sunday afternoon stateside is synonymous with the league, as even phrases like “Monday night” and “Thursday night” are to casual sports fans. If you’re a non-football fan, these provide safe windows to run errands with so many people glued to their couches or seated at a bar.

The core framework is simple. The “weekend” kicks off on Thursday night with a game or two. Sunday afternoon is a guaranteed double-header piggybacking off of increasingly frequent games in Europe occurring beforehand, with the bulk of games being played at 1:00 p.m. Eastern and a slimmer slate of multiple games at 4:00 p.m Eastern. Then the real marquee timeslots: Sunday night and Monday night, usually one game each that are earmarked as the must-watch matchups of them all.

How would that look for MLS? Let’s take July 13 as an example. There are no Wednesday regular season games leading into July 13. The U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal takes place the previous Tuesday and Wednesday, with up to eight MLS teams (as in the first teams, rightfully) involved. Take a page from the NFL’s book, flex your marquee matchups based on teams’ recent form and schedule congestion, and space this thing out to give plenty of entry points for fans wanting to watch MLS.

This is the result of an hour’s worth of thought and reorganization, and it could no doubt be improved with a more meticulous approach. Ultimately, I wanted to achieve a few things.

  • Presently, the final Premier League time slot on Saturdays and Sundays is at 12:30 p.m. Eastern. Having early afternoon games helps bridge the gap between American fans’ morning viewing and their afternoon/evenings, which could catch some straggling eyes.
  • I’m of the mind that soccer looks very good when played in sunlight, both in stadiums and on screens. For all of the nuance and detail work that’s gone into MLS’s stadiums, much is unnoticeable when every game is played under floodlights. Gareth Bale’s final club goal came in broad daylight, and his run to the corner flag donning the black-and-gold was arguably enhanced by the natural lighting. This isn’t to say that night games don’t have their place — just don’t be afraid to offer an alternative.
  • The bulk of games should be played in two Saturday time slots, not one. The early slot will understandably skew toward Eastern Conference teams, but could be used to highlight teams on the rise (Colorado, in this projection) or a good Western matchup in a great stadium (Austin versus Seattle). Similarly, teams in the East can be bumped to the later slot to avoid hot, humid afternoons (like Washington, D.C.) or get a great club under the bright lights (FC Cincinnati above).
  • Only three time slots should be flexed each week: the nightcaps on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. These could be decided two or three weeks in advance, guided by teams in rich veins of form or fun matchups in a dynamic league. This allows for consistency in scheduling for most teams, while this approach to marquee games could better spread the love to give more teams their close-up rather than projecting the best matchups in the previous December.

And, perhaps ironically, I chose a weekend where the lone MLS team with a bye is… Inter Miami, a team that you’d assume would be fated to play every game in a preferred slot. Does this attempt achieve my hopes? I think so. It’s still less erratic than the seasons before 2023, which gives necessary framework, while better clueing neutrals in to possibly great games by giving them their own slots rather than being one of eight kicking off concurrently.

Will MLS weekends ever be as hallowed as an NFL Sunday? Almost certainly not, although that’s no fault of the league’s own. Every other league in the world covets the grasp NFL Sundays have over American culture. Still, part of what works for the NFL could easily be adopted by MLS, increasing how often fans of the sport can catch a game on Apple TV. Considering how few fans seemed to watch match replays, that’s a better way to broaden their usage of the platform.

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(Photo of Christian McCaffrey: David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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