TORONTO – The MLS Cup Playoffs will expand to 10 teams in 2011, and even bigger changes may be down the road.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced the tweaks to the postseason format before kickoff of Sunday’s MLS Cup final at BMO Field and explained a new system in which the playoffs will be open to two additional clubs in 2011.
Additionally, Garber delivered an even bigger bombshell: that the league is beginning to investigate moving to an international calendar, which would align MLS with most European leagues’ fall-to-spring calendar and would break during FIFA dates for international games.
However, the Commissioner added, those changes are far from happening and the league wasn’t near making a decision that would bring the most drastic operating changes in MLS history.
"The bottom line is we're telling the world we're going to begin taking a very serious look at this whole issue and what kinds of things we need to do to determine if it makes sense for us," Garber told reporters.
The immediate changes will take place next October, in which the MLS Cup Playoffs will feature an additional play-in round for the bottom four qualifiers in a 10-team system. Garber said those teams would face off in a knockout format for the right to qualify for the eight-team main field in the playoff bracket.
Garber said the league’s Competition Committee had not yet decided whether that meant teams ranked four and five in each conference facing off or whether it was teams ranked seventh through 10th in an overall standings format.
The committee has not yet determined whether those play-in series would be single-game or home-and-away, either, but those decisions would be made in the next 30 days, as would finalizing the MLS Cup Playoffs format.
The league is undecided if it wants to continue to move teams across conference lines in order to ensure the best regular-season teams qualify for the postseason. Garber said he understood fans’ and critics’ confusion that the current system allowed two Western Conference teams to meet in last weekend’s Eastern Conference Championship.
"We've got to figure what that mechanism is," Garber told ESPN at halftime of MLS Cup. "We have to find a way to solve that for next year."
The Commissioner also confirmed that the 2011 season would consist of a balanced, 34-game schedule in which each of the league’s 18 teams (with incoming Portland and Vancouver) would play each other home and away. That may require First Kick to be moved up by one weekend, Garber said, with the regular season beginning the second week of March.
A balanced schedule probably won’t be possible beyond next season, however, Garber said, as Montreal enter the league in 2012 and perhaps a 20th team in 2013.
A decision on adopting the international calendar is much further away, however, as Garber said he had no timetable on making a change.
He did, however, say one possibility the league was looking at was to begin in late summer, break in early winter, resume in February and conclude in late spring. Such an idea was on the table to avoid playing in harsh winter conditions in MLS markets, similar to the Scandinavian calendar.