If you’d asked me a few days ago who was still in the Major League Soccer Playoffs and when they were playing, I would have had a hard time telling you. Indeed, I did ask myself those things. And on the former, I had to think hard; on the latter, I had to look it up.
Now, mind you, I write about soccer as a job. I get paid to pay close attention. You may ascribe the above failures to my bare-minimum competence, but nonetheless, if it was tricky for me to even remember where we stood in the playoffs, how could you expect anybody but the most ardent of fans to?
Wait. The MLS season is still going?
— A.J. Perez (@byajperez) November 22, 2017
When they kicked off their two-leg Eastern Conference Final on Tuesday, it had been 16 days since the Columbus Crew had outlasted New York City FC, and Toronto FC had eked out a result against the New York Red Bulls on away goals in the conference semifinals. In fact, it had been 19 days since the Seattle Sounders had reached the Western Conference Final, where it would take on the Houston Dynamo later in the night.
In the span of 19 days, MLS will now anoint a champion of the United States and Canada.
This layoff, caused by the lengthy November international break, is obviously problematic. In our chock-full sporting schedule, so much happens in the span of two weeks (and change) that it almost feels like the second half of the playoffs are a new season entirely.
There probably isn’t anybody within or connected to MLS who would deny that this is an abiding issue. But identifying a problem is one thing, solving it is quite another.
There are myriad reasons why the MLS season now drags on into early December. For one, its playoffs keep expanding. It has more rounds than it used to and those rounds now largely consist of two games, rather than one. In 2015, a knockout round was added before the conference semifinals. And in 2012, the conference finals were converted into two-match affairs, like the semifinals, rather than just winner-take-all games. Meanwhile, as recently as 2010, there were only eight teams in the playoffs. Now there are 12 — and counting.
Part of the reason for that is that since 2010, the league has mushroomed from 16 teams to 23 next year, with five more on the way in the coming seasons. Purists would say that they’d rather the playoffs stay exclusive, as they are in Major League Baseball, for instance, rather than something more than half of teams reach, like in the NBA. But, more often than not, bigger playoffs are good for business. They aren’t going anywhere.
Then there’s the fact that the regular season is a lot longer than it used to be. It begins in early March and ends in late October. This, too, is because of expansion — both of the number of clubs and the schedule. Since 2011, teams play a 34-game schedule, rather than a 30-game one.
So where lay the solution?
That’s the tricky part. The most likely way to complete the season before the November international break would be to condense the regular season, shorten it or to start it sooner.
Condensing it isn’t an option. MLS is already one of the more grueling leagues around, between the endless travel, time-changes, altitudes, climates and various kinds of turf. Shortening it would mean surrendering revenue, which cannot possibly be appealing in a league where some teams still aren’t breaking even. Start it sooner? That means playing soccer in February, which is the dead of winter in about half the league’s markets and trickier than playing through November.
The alternative is to make the playoffs shorter, shrinking the most marketable part of the season. But that would mean going back to one-leg conference finals, and maybe even semifinals. While entertaining, the knock on that format is that it makes the already-fickle playoffs even more prone to fluke.
In a way, the November problem is the league’s punishment for its own success. Had it not grown the way it has, it also wouldn’t have this logistical problem to address.
At any rate, the calendar kerfuffle wasn’t helped any by the fact that the first game in the return of the playoffs — the aforementioned Crew-TFC bout on Tuesday night — offered all the merriment of a town planning board meeting. The whole thing felt procedural, with both teams looking to make it through the first leg unscathed. (Which is a weird approach, by the way, whether you’re playing at home or away. Why not try to convert your home-field advantage? Or get a precious away goal?)
One of the most exciting things to happen all night was some passing out of the back.
Oh, and there was an almost-but-not-really goal at some point.
Moor manages to keep Kamara's shot from finding the back of the net. pic.twitter.com/Cyj8JrdLqm
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 22, 2017
Midway through the second half, the Crew finally began to stir.
Artur very nearly opens the scoring, but we are still 0-0. pic.twitter.com/7iy02sFWxz
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) November 22, 2017
Justin Meram nodded a header off the bar in the late going, but he was offside.
So, yeah, 0-0. And 90 minutes of the lives of all those who watched or were involved, set alight.
None of which is the fault of this scheduling issue. But it sure didn’t help things.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.