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MLS still needs to fix its playoff schedule

Fixes have been made, but it’s not yet perfect.

MLS: Commissioner Don Garber-State of the Union League Address Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

We have nearly come to the conclusion of the first season under Major League Soccer’s new playoff format. The format was adjusted at the end of last season, as the MLS season itself was also shortened. With the new single-elimination format, with seven teams from each conference making it in, MLS solved its issue of having the November FIFA International Break fall right into the middle of the later rounds of the playoffs. The 2019 iteration of the MLS Cup Playoffs started after the October International Break, which started right after Decision Day. Decision Day this year was Oct. 6, and the break was Oct. 7-15. The first round of the playoffs started on Oct. 19th, with MLS Cup Sunday, Nov. 10. This helped MLS end the season earlier, avoided the international break, instead using it as a bye week for playoff teams, and enabled the single-elimination rounds.

But there is a major issue with the new format, as we have come to realize in real time this year. And no, it is not the lack of re-seeding, nor is it that seven teams per conference add up to over half the league this past season. The issue is the scheduling of the games themselves.

Courtesy of MLS

The first round of the playoffs took place on Oct. 19-20. That is not the problem here, although I will address something about it later. The problem starts with the conference semifinals being played on Oct. 23-24. Having playoff games on a weeknight is not conducive to building the hype for a game. Even more so, having playoff games kick off at 10 pm ET or later is not conducive to marketing your product, which you just re-evaluated to be more exciting with a single elimination format.

Neither of LAFC’s playoff games this year kicked off earlier than 10 pm ET. In fact, they both started around more like 10:30. That has the game over after midnight in the eastern time zone, which is ridiculous for a weeknight. If the league wants to get eyeballs on their exciting, super-hype knockout playoff soccer, they should put it when people will watch it. The same applies to the conference finals on Oct. 29-30, again weeknights. Yes, the league avoided games on Halloween. Glad we got that sorted out. But this is not even “Thursday Night Football“ primetime levels. This is a Tuesday night. That is something that can directly lead to fewer people watching the games.

Here is an example — if Monday Night Football, or Sunday Night Football, includes games on the West Coast: what time does kickoff happen? It takes place at 7:30 pm EST. Not 7:30 pm local. I understand what MLS may be trying to do. But a simple piece of having these playoffs is to make sure people can watch them. It is a hard sell to stay up so late on a weeknight in a major section of the country with work the next morning.

There is a simple solution to this issue that you can see by looking at the calendar, and this is a solution that can be applied to MLS’ infamous midweek all-star game.

Put the games on weekends.

Round 1 can be Oct. 19-20. Conference semifinals have the weekend of Oct. 26-27 open. And the Conference Finals can be Nov. 2-3. That gives a week in between each playoff matchup. That puts the games in prime time when people can watch them.

An argument against having the games on a weekend is that the TV networks have other things to show on the weekend already, which may be true. The NFL and college football dominate the weekend slate. But this year, MLS had to compete one night with Thursday Night Football and the World Series. Plus, MLS Cup is on a Sunday afternoon. MLS is already competing for eyeballs, which is fine. But in that case, go ahead and put the product in a position to be consumed.

Speaking from experience, I could not watch several of the games on a weeknight. If it was on the West Coast on a weeknight with the late kickoff, I was out. I’m surely not the only one, and I would have watched those games if they were at watchable times. I’m not saying this is a game-breaking issue. What I am saying is that in MLS’ rush to shorten the playoffs, they missed a chance to put the games on the weekends that MLS actually left open. This is a solvable issue, and MLS would benefit from it.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!