It's hard to imagine a more perfect round of playoffs this year for Major League Soccer's new format for the second season. With only one game between sides to determine who moves on, the six games this past weekend were chock-full of attacking soccer, absolutely maddening drama, and results that point to the regular season now being even more important with five of six home teams moving on. You could not have imagined a better weekend for MLS.
And it's likely that that the conference semifinals — which started last night and wrap up tonight — are going to be just as dramatic. However, having the semifinal games so quickly after the first round of playoffs means there hasn't been quite the buildup of anticipation that these games are afforded. After two weeks between the end of the regular season and the first round of playoffs, it's disappointing that the next round happened so quickly.
There's no getting around that MLS has to work with so many factors to get in their playoffs. This new playoff format started this year in large part because MLS did not want to have to take a break during a FIFA international window, which is used to have to do in November. Now, MLS races through the playoffs after the conclusion of the October international window to wrap up neatly before the start of the November window.
And in theory, that works out well, except for the fact that MLS is not playing during this coming weekend or the one after that. Instead, both the conference semifinals and conference finals are played midweek, with then a 10-day break before the MLS Cup final on November 10. That leads plenty of buildup for the conference finals and the cup final — allowing for fans and media to overanalyze the upcoming matchups — while leaving the conference semifinals underserved.
A big part of the scheduling issue comes down to having to share stadiums with NFL teams. Three teams currently in the playoffs — the Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, and the LA Galaxy — share their fields with football teams. While the Galaxy are the main tenant at their own stadium and only have to share with the Los Angeles Chargers for one more season, the Sounders and United aren't in the same boat.
Which forces MLS' hand in trying to get creative about when their games are going to be played. And that's before even discussing New York City FC, who hosted Toronto FC last night — but not at the usual Yankee Stadium. There was a thought that maybe the Yankees might be playing in the World Series this week (HA!), and in anticipation, NYCFC moved their game to another baseball stadium, Citi Field, home of the New York Mets.
Tonight, Los Angeles FC host the LA Galaxy in the second Western Conference semifinal. The game has the potential to be one of the best contests ever in MLS history. In two short years, these teams have played out several wild games, with the newly formed LAFC yet to beat their counterparts, despite putting together the best ever MLS regular season in 2019.
But it wasn't until late Sunday night that the matchup was confirmed when the Galaxy went on the road and defeated Minnesota United. There's plenty of anticipation for the game tonight, but with even more buildup, this game could have been talked about more, analyzed and broken down more, building up the hype to astronomical levels.
There's also the fact that this game will kick off well after 10 PM ET on a weeknight. Of course, you have to cater to the fans in Los Angeles for the start time, but if this game were on the weekend, then it could have been played at a time when more people on the East Coast could watch it. Instead, many MLS fans on this side of the Mississippi won't know the outcome of the game until they wake up on Friday morning.
Finding a perfect solution for the MLS playoffs is almost impossible. There are so many factors to contend with, that getting the scheduling perfect is likely never going to happen. But that doesn't mean that there shouldn't be some disappointment that four exciting conference semifinal matchups are being undercut by the fact that the games happen so quickly after the first round of MLS playoffs.