In the MLS Cup playoffs, Real Salt Lake had to play another game after tying Sporting Kansas City in Leg 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. Due to the aggregate scoring model, a team advanced to the next round only if, after two games, it scored the most total goals. If both teams were tied, the team with more away goals advanced.
The same scenario was true for the conference finals. The final round, however, was only one game, winner take all.
Now, that playoff format will be a thing of the past. Last month, Major League Soccer announced sweeping changes where every round will be win-or-go-home. Instead of teams potentially playing a maximum of six postseason games, the number has been reduced to four.
MLS also truncated the season so it ends a month earlier. Last season, the playoffs started Oct. 31 and ended Dec. 8. In 2019, the first playoff games will be played Oct. 19, and the MLS Cup final will take place Nov. 6.
The new schedule avoids the November FIFA break, which last season sat in the middle of the postseason. By the time the MLS Cup final began, weeks had passed since the conference finals and the hype had died down. Now teams and fans alike will get a nonstop mad dash to the championship.
“It'll be essentially our own little World Cup,” RSL defender Tony Beltran said recently. “I think it’ll be exciting.”
The tighter schedule does have its drawbacks, one of them being how to handle FIFA’s scheduled breaks. Last year, RSL observed three of the four international breaks. That number will go down to two this year because RSL will play during March’s international break.
“From a management standpoint, the schedule is a bit more congested now, so we just need to be aware of that,” RSL General Manager Craig Waibel said. “We need to plan farther ahead — two to three weeks (out), minimum — on how we’re going to use players, how we’re going to rotate them, how we’re going to tactically approach each match, and then go from there”
One of the major changes to the playoff format in 2019 is the higher-seeded teams will have home-field advantage. For the conference semifinal and final rounds last season, each team got a home match. As an example, sixth-place RSL had an opportunity to close out the first-place Sporting KC at home in the semifinals last season.
“Regular season games take a bigger role in order to try and accomplish that home-field advantage to give your fans the ability to help your team win,” Waibel said. “So I think everything becomes a little bit more important throughout the season.”
Soccer analyst Brian Dunseth called it “fantastic” that the league will avoid the international window late in the year. But with the season ending sooner, that means a longer offseason where players can potentially sit out more than three months before playing their next competitive soccer game, he said.
Dunseth also said the tighter regular season schedule will put pressure on clubs to have depth on their rosters, and he foresees fatigue playing a “massive” role as the season plays out.
RSL passes on third and fourth rounds of MLS draft
RSL on Monday elected to not use its three picks in the latter two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft. The club had the 65th, 80th and 89th overall picks. The team also passed on its third-round picks in last year’s draft, and was excluded in the fourth round as a result.