Last season, the Portland Timbers won the MLS Cup. They bested Sporting Kansas City (thanks in large part to a goal post), overcame hated rival Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and beat Supporters Shield holder FC Dallas.
In the final Caleb Porter’s side would go on to defeat Columbus Crew SC and earn their first-ever title as an MLS side.
There were parades in the street, books were written about it, heck management even waited a few extra minutes to start cutting their players (the MLS Supplemental Draft must be respected!).
While it would seem like this would be a time for celebration, it left a bad taste in many supporters’ mouths.
The Portland Timbers, a side that finished in third place in the Western Conference and only qualified for the playoffs by winning their final three matches, won the MLS Cup, the most desired prize in MLS (sorry, US Open Cup and Supporters Shield).
Now before the chainsaws are cranked up let’s be clear: this isn’t really a knock against the Timbers. Portland gamed the MLS system and won.
These are the rules that the league has set up where every six teams in every conference make the playoffs, where two-legged playoffs and where the final is determined by one match.
Portland played the game according to the rules given, and with a little luck, were highly successful.
The Timbers are also not the first side to coast through the regular season, squeak in at the last minute, and make a late run.
Those that heap praise on Bruce Arena for his work as a coach also turn a bit of a blind eye to his mid-season tactics of playing second or third-tier squads in league matches.
It is a successful system, there is no question about that. But for some it cheapens the value of the regular season.
What is the point of attending a match in late June if the result does not matter?
Considering that the top six teams in each conference go to the playoffs the answer is not very much.
At the heart of the issue is the same problem that MLS has faced since its inception: it tries to mix the best things about North American sports and club football and comes up with an inefficient system.
Much like the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League MLS uses a playoff system to determine its season champion.
While it may be common to determine one’s champion through playoffs in North American sports, it is not the same in club football.
Most, if not all, European leagues in Europe use a single table season to determine their champions.
Playoffs are used to determine the winners of competitions like the League and FA Cup as well as the UEFA Champions but they are very different from the model that MLS uses.
Even the UEFA Champions League only uses a small number of group stage matches, not 30 or 40.
As it stands MLS’ composite model of a long regular season, followed by one and two-legged playoff matches, leaves too many gaps.
Teams should not be allowed to game the system at the tail end of the season. The league champion should be the team that was most consistently the top side for the duration of the season.
If MLS wants a playoff system that is fine but teams with the superior record in the regular season should be given a very clear and very distinct advantage.
So what sort of system should MLS adopt? The most clear and obvious answer is a single table.
Under such a format, each side would face each other twice and the team with the most points at the end of the season would be declared champion.
This would remove all questions about an unbalanced schedule and give each side an equal chance of winning the title.
Supporters that want to see playoff football could still watch the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League and in theory those two titles would have an enhanced importance for MLS sides.
The one drawback to this idea is the distance issue. Unlike Europe where sides can quickly travel to different cities, the United States is a very large country.
To travel across the country, clubs have to cross multiple time zones and take lengthy flights.
Anyone who watched this year’s Copa America Centenario could see the toll that the cross-country flights took on Uruguay as they went back and forth from both coasts.
There is also a cost factor. That may sound hard to believe given some of the recent ownership additions to the league but remember this is a league that still claims to be breaking even.
The second option would be to adopt a league model similar to what the other four North American leagues have adopted.
Under this model, MLS would have a playoff system but instead of a one or two-legged playoff system create a best of five or seven series.
Eliminate draws in playoff matches and give teams with superior home records home-field advantage, by doing this MLS gets to keep their playoffs but adds importance to the regular season.
Although lower seeded teams do pull off upsets it is not as often as one sees in MLS.
When it does happen it feels like a special moment as opposed to just another ho-hum playoff win.
There seems to be very little wrong with this format on the surface, but the biggest issue is that it would be a step back in international football for MLS.
For a league that struggles to gain respect in the world adopting a model that is wildly different from the rest of the world this may harm their image abroad.
The league would also run the risk of further dividing the football-watching public here in the United States and Canada.
There are still those in both countries who will religiously watch European soccer but would never give MLS the time of day.
A North American league format would push those football fans further away from MLS pitches.
Another model that has never really been considered is to split the league into two tables (Eastern and Western Conference-this already exists) and have the top two teams in each conference meet in the playoffs.
The two conferences would remain independent from one another and not play each other aside from in the playoffs or in league competitions(U.S. Open Cup, Voyageurs Cup, and CCL).
Each team would play their respective conference mates twice in a home and home series. Although it is a bit of a modified single table it would remove the travel excuse.
Limiting the number of playoff spots would also make regular season matches more important and eliminate teams sliding into the playoffs late.
There are a couple of issues with this system. First, the conferences are too small right now to put in such a system.
Although the league will be adding Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC next season and LAFC in 2018 each conference would need to add an additional three or four teams to make it work.
That likely means dipping into the lower divisions which is always a thorny issue.
Although the league has had success in bringing up sides from the NASL and USL there has been considerable backlash especially from those within the promotion relegation crowd that MLS is not interested in the development of Canadian and U.S. Soccer.
There is also the question of whether geography is the best way to determine the top clubs in MLS.
A similar issue arose in the NBA at the tail end of the last decade where the Western Conference was vastly superior to the Eastern Conference.
Teams in the Western Conference were being left out of the playoffs due to playing in the West while inferior sides in the East had the chance to win the NBA title.
It is a flaw of the playoff model here in North America and there is not really a good solution available.
No matter what model MLS chooses the league needs to find a way to make the regular season matter more.
In the end it is a question of the league finding a model that fits their size, their resources, and the needs of their players, coaches, staff, and supporters.
It is a difficult situation and it will be a challenging to try to satisfy all parties.
Although MLS in certain circumstances has shown themselves to be a bit inflexible, league officials have shown a willingness to tinker with their format.
To further build the league not just in North America but also globally they are going to have to tinker some more.