Recalibrating success in the new MLS playoff format

Oct 16, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; CF Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic (not pictured)
Oct 16, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, Canada; CF Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic (not pictured) / David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer's new playoff format is all but official. The league is set to approve a new 9-team playoff model that will feature a best-of-three first round, according to The Athletic. I wrote a lot of my thoughts on the proposal when the Athletic's reports first broke, but I've soured on the propsal since then.

An eight team playoff --- to me an 8 v. 9 wildcard is a play-in, not playoff game --- feels like a lot and the way this process was unveiled built a lot of unnecessary bad press and bad vibes.

Regardless of our opinions, this is the way forward for the MLS postseason. And that means fans, pundits and teams themselves need to recalibrate what it means to be succesful in this league.

Making the playoffs cannot be the mark of a succesful season. If we include the play-in game, 62% of the league qualifies.

That's not an impressive accomplishment. There's a strong argument that making the playoffs wasn't much of an accomplishment during the previous system where 50% of the league made the postseason.

Too many franchises and front offices see just making it to the dance as a success. It felt like the "all we need is a shot," mentality of the playoffs gave teams an excuse to just get in and then take what happened next as gravy.

With the best-of-three system, making it to the second round will be the new standard for teams with real competitive ambition. Frankly it should be the minimum expectation for any club worth its salt.

There's plenty of context to that success. If a club has been in the rebuilding doldrums --- say the Houston Dynamo for example --- just making the playoffs would be a breath of fresh air. But in a league where year-to-year results can swing wildly, ambitious clubs need to have more ambitious expectations.

Some teams already have this mindset. Atlanta United, Toronto FC and especially the Seattle Sounders are at a point where they expect to genuinely compete for trophies every season. More teams need to get to that level of expectation.

This is a point that's been emphasized a lot by Sam Stejskal and Paul Tenorio on Allocation Disorder, and they're right on the money.

Expanded playoff fields can give the least ambitious MLS clubs and owners an excuse not to push forward. A team like Colorado can limp into 9th place and boast about a succesful playoff season. That shouldn't be good enough for fans or front offices.

Not every team can make the playoffs, win a round or win a trophy every season. That's why the chase for success is so exhilarating. But fans need to hold clubs more accountable when teams don't meet competitive expectations.

The situation with the Los Angeles Galaxy is an excellent example of this.

Jeff Carlisle of ESPN wrote an in-depth story detailing the feud between Galaxy supporters and the front office after a decade of failure in Southern California. I don't know how I personally feel about their indignation at this moment --- when the club is coming off a succesful season, including a playoff win --- but holding teams accountable for not pushing for greatness is necessary in this league.

In promotion and relegation systems, teams are forced to be ambitious for the sake of their own survival. Personally, those stakes are far too rich for my blood and creates a type of pressure and anxiety that can do a lot more bad than good.

But without pro/rel, it's hard to mandate teams do whatever they can to succeed on the field. Most people working in sports are highly competitive by nature and will always push to win at all costs, but that isn't always matched by the owners and higher ups at certain clubs.

It's up to the fans to hold truth to power and push clubs to do more. And as the rewards for MLS mediocrity continue to rise, the voice of the fans is more important than ever.