MLS will expand playoffs to 10 teams

Updated: November 22, 2010, 12:38 AM ET
By Jeff Carlisle | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- MLS will begin exploring the possibility of aligning its season with the international calendar, according to commissioner Don Garber.

The announcement was just one of several that the head of MLS made at a news conference before Sunday's MLS Cup final between FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids. Garber also indicated that the league will expand the number of playoff qualifiers to 10, and will play a balanced 34-game schedule next season that will begin in the third week of March. The league's conferences will also remain, although those will change with the addition of expansion sides in Vancouver and Portland next season.

The biggest revelation was related to the league's calendar. MLS currently begins its season in March, plays through the summer months, and concludes with a league championship in November. Such a set-up has often put the league at odds with international fixture dates as well as international tournaments such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup, FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA World Cup. MLS has often played straight through such events, causing many of the league's best players to miss MLS matches.

The league's decision to expand the season to 34 games, when teams are already complaining of fixture congestion because of outside competitions such as the CONCACAF Champions League, highlights the need to look at alternatives.

"We've got to take the steps to figure [the schedule] out," said Garber. "We're going to do a lot of research internally. We're going to take some time to look at people outside of the league who can help us with this research."

Garber refused to put a timetable on when a decision would be reached and said that "nothing is off the table" as far as what format a revamped calendar would take.

As for why MLS has chosen this moment to explore the possibility, the commissioner stated it was down to the growth of the game in North America, although he admitted some serious impediments remain.

"Every day this sport grows and gets more relevant in our markets," said Garber. "As that happens, we're beginning to think that we can push the envelope a little bit further. In our view, it's not so much an issue with fans, but how do you play games in Montreal in February? How do you play them in Salt Lake?"

Although the proposal will likely be greeted positively by the league's fans, Garber is likely to get pushback on the changes to the playoff format. The commissioner indicated that the particulars on the postseason still need to be worked out, but that the bottom four qualifiers, however they might be determined, would participate in play-in games to reduce the field to eight teams. Whether that would be a one-game or two-legged playoff is still to be decided.

What also needs to be sorted out is whether the teams will remain in their conferences, or if they can cross over, as happened this year when the fifth- and sixth-place teams in the Western Conference qualified at the expense of the third- and fourth-place teams in the Eastern Conference because they had higher point totals. While keeping teams in their conferences would simplify things, it would also run the risk that one of the 10 best teams might miss out on the postseason.

"It's a tradeoff," said MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin.

As for why the league is bothering to expand the number of playoff teams at all, Garber stated that having more meaningful games trumped any concerns about possibly reducing the importance of the regular season.

"Counter to what soccer people around the world think about our playoffs, they're the most valuable games that we have," said Garber. "They're the highest-rated and the highest-attended. … So I'm not sure by adding two more teams that it devalues what we're trying to achieve."

Jeff Carlisle | email

U.S. soccer correspondent
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.