Major League Soccer’s playoff pace, timing utterly nonsensical


The pace and rhythm of Major League Soccer’s playoff stinks. It’s broken, largely ineffective and fairly nonsensical. There’s no other way to say it.

It’s really about a larger problem with MLS priorities: League stability now largely achieved, steady growth now a pleasant reality, Major League Soccer can now lean into the business of refining its product. And nowhere is refining (“reforming” actually, in this case) more important than in year-long scheduling. The concerns are myriad, including the problematic issue of playing through FIFA fixture dates, TV time slots that don’t make a lot of sense, the loss of opportunity in a lack of simultaneous final-day kickoffs and more.

Over the last few days, we’ve seen another troublesome, pot-holed road of MLS scheduling: a playoff docket that works against the league in so many ways, in limiting ticket sales and in stripping away any chance to build meaningful post-season momentum.

Let’s start here: Major League Soccer is committed to its playoff system. Not everyone agrees it should be this way; a day never passes in MLS supporter circles without impassioned debate over whether traditional world soccer models – single table, no playoffs, plus promotion-relegation – should decide the championship. But American sports are about playoffs, and I happen to believe that’s fine.

So MLS is committed to playoffs, and fair enough. League deciders favor the playoffs so much that three years ago they added two teams to the post-season field, getting more teams involved not only in the post-season, but in the truly exciting stretch run, the dramatic playoff races that (league officials hope) create memories, adding interest and fans along the way. So, fair enough to all that.

But it makes no sense to draw a big red circle around your post-season and point toward that show cow all year – and then fail to make it a priority in overall scheduling.  The league builds and builds and builds toward the playoffs – and then “Poof!”  So much of it is over in about 10 minutes.

(MORE: Dynamo president Chris Canetti talks about low turnout)

If we isolate scheduling, it really looks like the playoffs are just something MLS sticks on the back of the regular season. As in, “All right, let’s get this over with!”

First thing that happens: Teams often get two or three days to sell the first match. That’s why Seattle had just 32,204 in attendance for its elimination game against Colorado, a contest that kicked off just two-plus days after the final regular season kick. A few days after that, Seattle was back on the field again, this time playing before 38,507. Both are great numbers in domestic soccer – but well below average for the Seattle Sounders.

Along with the final regular season match, MLS policy forced Sounders FC to ask its fans to buy tickets three times within seven days. And that’s a tough ask. Bottom line, when Seattle is having trouble selling tickets to important matches, something has gone very wrong.

Both Seattle playoff matches at home so far fell well south of this swell attendance number; this was the final regular season match at CenturyLink.

Houston had issues selling playoff  tickets, too, no real surprise considering the Dynamo didn’t know it was in the post-season until final day – and then had seven days to sell two matches. (Yes, other sports, NBA, NHL, etc., face tight sales windows at playoff time. But as we all know, and yet sometimes conveniently forget during these conversations, MLS is not the NBA or even the NHL.)

TV becomes problematic, too, with so little time provided to sort out the particulars. MLS had major trouble ginning up network interest in last week’s elimination matches. Neither of tonight’s matches (where the league’s largest market club, New York, could be eliminated) will appear on an English-language national outlet.

Aside from ticket sales and missed opportunities to create sponsor involvement and TV interest, MLS gives itself and its clubs zero chance to build some real marketing momentum along the post-season way.

The season ends. Three or four days later, two teams are gone. A week after that, four more are out.

Think about that: Within 11 days of the final regular season whistle, 6 of 10 teams are gone! The bulk of the playoffs – remember, that big red circle the league has pointed to over an entire year – are history in just 11 days.

That is what MLS wants its playoffs to be about?

The single-game, 4th-vs.-5th elimination match is fine – but put it on the weekend after the final regular season match. (And for heaven’s sakes, stop putting one of the first MLS playoff contests on Halloween! People are out and about, not home watching sports.)

(MORE: MLS loses opportunities with no final-day simultaneous kickoffs)

Then stretch these conference semifinal series over two weekends. Give them some room to breathe. We see fantastic momentum build during playoff series runs in baseball, basketball and hockey. Those are multi-game sets, of course, and MLS is fine with its two-game, home-and-away format – but give them a chance to create some energy in the market, at least.

None of this even addresses issues of fairness or technical quality. Play, travel, play, travel … that’s hardly a recipe for great soccer.

Mostly though, MLS just doesn’t give itself a chance to exploit the meaningful post-season narratives, the memory makers that create club history and build legacy. And that’s a real shame.

It’s not that difficult: Add a couple more regular season weeknight dates – and then avoid them at all cost during the post-season.

Generally, when creating the overall schedule, MLS needs to start with a playoff schedule that makes sense, and then back into the regular season from there.

Southgate: Racism isn’t just a Russian problem

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Credit England boss Gareth Southgate for honesty.

The national team manager was asked about the plethora of stories regarding racism in Russian football ahead of this summer’s World Cup.

[ MORE: PSG punished for incidents vs. Real ]

Given the climate between Russia and England, there are any number of roads he could’ve taken in reply. Suffice it to say, he chose the high one.

Pointing out that racism is everywhere, Southgate used the example of Kick It Out manager Troy Townsend showing the coach some racist comments posted on a photo of English youth national team.

“Our teams mix and the youngsters look up to the senior team,” said Southgate. “I know most of those young players really closely and I’ve seen them come through. To see them abused in that way is absolutely disgusting. When we speak about other countries, I find it difficult to deflect what we’ve seen there.”

“I don’t think we should just talk about racism in Russia. We have got to get our own house in order. There are still things going on in our own country around racism that aren’t correct. We keep pointing the finger at Russia, where we are going to be guests in the next couple of months, but we haven’t resolved the issue in our own country and until we do I think we should stop firing those things off elsewhere.”

Full marks to Southgate for that, now more folks need to turn words into action and cut the vile comments off at the knees.

PSG fined, will have to close part of stadium at next UCL match

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Paris Saint-Germain’s fans had a bit too much fun in their UEFA Champions League loss against Real Madrid, but apparently just a bit.

[ MORE: Zlatan leaves Man Utd ]

Les Parisiens  are facing a partial stadium ban for next season’s first UCL contest after their fans were charged with blocking a stairway, setting off fireworks, and using a laser pointer.

The punishment includes closing the North Stand at the Parc Des Princes and a fine of a little over $52,000.

The stadium ban is one thing, but $52,000, UEFA? How will PSG ever afford it? Neymar will certainly have to take a pay cut.

(If you’re curious, Neymar makes approximately $1 million per week).

Injuries leave host Russia limping ahead of World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) With less than three months to go until the World Cup in Russia, the host nation’s players are dropping like flies.

A spate of knee injuries this year has left the Russians hurrying to find cover at the back and trying to replace a key attacking threat.

[ MORE: Zlatan leaves Man Utd ]

First, center back Georgy Dzhikiya tore his knee ligaments during a friendly in January. The same happened to Viktor Vasin a month later. Russia’s defense was already thin, so those injuries prompted calls for the 35-year-old Berezutsky twins, Alexei and Vasily, to return from international retirement. They refused to do so.

Now coach Stanislav Cherchesov must also seek a replacement for Zenit St. Petersburg forward Alexander Kokorin, who tore his knee ligaments in the Europa League last week. That puts more responsibility on the shoulders of Fyodor Smolov, now likely to be Russia’s undisputed first-choice striker for the World Cup.

“We’re not complaining about anything,” Cherchesov said Thursday. “Fate is often testing us in various ways but we always try to be ready.”

The injuries mean Cherchesov will be forced to experiment during Friday’s friendly against Brazil and Tuesday’s game against France, both at home. Short-term medical issues have ruled three more fringe players out of those games.

Here’s a closer look at the issues facing Russia ahead of the World Cup:


If you had to pick one Russian striker for the World Cup, it might as well be Fyodor Smolov.

On track to be the Russian league’s top scorer for the third season in a row, Smolov has been working on his English skills as he eyes a move to the Premier League.

Smolov was linked with West Ham during the January transfer window but opted to stay with FC Krasnodar, saying he didn’t want to abandon his team as it battles for a spot in the Champions League next season.

With Kokorin almost certainly out of the picture for the World Cup, Russia’s backup options include Anton Zabolotny, who is still settling in at Zenit after a recent move from newly promoted FC Tosno. The 22-year-old Alexei Miranchuk can play as a forward, but is better in a deeper role.


Russian players tend to stay in their domestic league, but there’s one big exception in midfield – Denis Cheryshev.

The winger came through the Real Madrid youth system when his father was coaching there and is now at Villarreal, but frequent injuries have dented hopes he can add some spice to the national team.

Now he’s fit again and in the squad to face Brazil and France.

Elsewhere in the midfield, there are the promising and creative youngsters Roman Zobnin and Alexander Golovin, but Russia doesn’t currently have a dominant defensive midfielder.


Cherchesov has a reputation as a difficult coach to get along with, and Russian media have regularly reported fallings-out with various players.

One of those outside the squad is Igor Denisov, who last played for Russia in 2016. He has been playing well in a defensive midfield role this season for Lokomotiv Moscow, the team at the top of the Russian league standings. Denisov and Cherchesov clashed during the latter’s time as Dynamo Moscow coach.

Also absent from the squad is forward Artyom Dzyuba. A talented striker who has scored 11 goals in 22 games for Russia but has a reputation for being hot-headed, Dzyuba was deemed surplus to requirements at Zenit and sent on loan to Arsenal Tula. In three games there, he has scored three goals and set up two more to put himself back in the World Cup contention.


Russia’s soccer team hasn’t escaped the country’s doping scandals.

Defensive midfielder Ruslan Kambolov is under investigation by FIFA for a possible doping case revealed by Moscow laboratory documents, but hasn’t been suspended.

The team’s schedule was disrupted Wednesday by drug-testing, which took more than five hours and delayed training. On Thursday, the team said five more doping control officers turned up to take samples from the team.

Wilshere injured, could play in England’s second friendly

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I have no idea what tendinopathy means, but Arsenal and England will be hoping it’s only a minor thing for Jack Wilshere.

[ MORE: Zlatan leaves Man Utd ]

The resurgent Gunners midfielder is going to miss at least one of England’s friendlies this international break after suffering a knee injury in training.

“Jack just felt some tendinopathy in his knee but it’s nothing too serious,” Southgate said. “We decided to leave him back at base and see how he responds, and we hope to have him with us on Saturday.”

England is in Netherlands on Friday, and returns to London to host Italy at Wembley on Tuesday.

Arsenal doesn’t play until April 1 when it visits Stoke City.