I recently came across a story on the NFL's offseason rules changes. There were a few changes, though nothing earth shattering. But one area that was not touched was the playoffs. Whatever ideas that were floating out there regarding the NFL playoffs were quickly squashed by the owners, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this about the playoffs.
"There’s something to be said about competition at the end of the season, but look at our game against the Giants. Tom Coughlin didn’t hold back and we had something to play for. I do believe if you win a division, it’s good for your fans to know you will have a home game. To win a division, there is a reward and we wanted to keep that.”
I immediately thought about the MLS and their playoff structure. In MLS, each playoff team gets to host a home game, so the bar for MLS is much lower than the bar for the NFL. It's a reward to reach the playoffs but it's somewhat of a punishment for certain clubs once you get there. Results in April and May matter somewhat but it all gets trumped by whatever team has the hot hand in September and October.
So I figured, what system would work in order to make it rewarding for clubs to reach the playoffs and feel good about it. I came up with something that in theory might work but wouldn't if the league is set on reaching 18 teams.
Now, I do feel that a single-table top-six-teams-get-playoffs format would work best, but it's not realistic. MLS officials are bent on Americanizing the sport, that is adding elements fans of other American sports are familiar with such as conferences, divisions, all-star games, playoffs, etc. etc. that you may not see in foreign soccer leagues. The game itself can't and shouldn't be changed (I shudder with the thought of overtime and shootouts) but these other elements can and are modified.
Thus, with a 16-team league, the teams can split up into two conferences the way they are but then could be further divided up into divisions.
Thus, in 2010 the league could look like this:
Real Salt Lake
In this format, each team would play each division rival four times. Each team from one division would their counterparts in the other division within its conference three times. Thus, Pacific teams would play Mountain teams three times apiece and same for Atlantic and Central teams. Additionally, each team from one conference would play one game against each team from the other conference.
For instance, Colorado would play four games apiece agaist thier divisional rivals, three games apiece against teams from the Pacific Division and one game against each Eastern Conference team. Maybe they host two teams from each division and play away at the other two, or something similar. The season would go back up to 32 games, though. It's the only way I found this to system to work.
As far as the playoffs, the driving force behind this model, the division winners would get a spot. Plus, the best second-place team from each conference would go as well. So if RSL finishes second in their division but has more points than the second-place team in the Pacific, they'd go.
Best team in each conference gets a bye, the other division winner would host the wild card in a one-off conference semifinal match with the winner traveling for the conference final. I think that may make the regular season much more interesting and competitive.
It won't work with 18 teams though. You'd have to either keep it the way it is right now - with two conferences only - or go with one table and the top six or eight get in.