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MLS playoff system makes Wednesday sudden-death game a tough sell

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Major League Soccer launched its new playoff format on Wednesday with the first of its two wild-card play-in games. Thanks to goals from Joel Lindpere and Thierry Henry, the New York Red Bulls beat FC Dallas 2-0 — eliminating the Hoops from the post-season just a week after Toronto FC went into Texas and knocked Dallas out of the CONCACAF Champions League.

The review of the playoff game itself? Meh.

The fact that just 10,017 people showed up at Pizza Hut Park to cheer on FC Dallas is troubling. And, it’s a sign MLS can learn some lessons on how much time is actually needed to generate interest in a one-and-done playoff game between lower seeds.

This season, MLS upped the number of teams that make the playoffs from eight to 10; to make it work, the league introduced sudden-death playoff games between seeds seven and 10 and eight and nine. But, to make it work in an already packed schedule, the games had to be played soon after the regular season ended.

So, fans only found out late Sunday night what the playoff matches would be — and, on Wednesday, Dallas had a home game. That gave FCD’s front office less than 72 hours to sell a playoff game between two slumping teams in what is one of the toughest markets in MLS.

That’s not enough time for one of the better MLS markets to get it together.

Colorado hosts Columbus Thursday in the other wild card game, and Denver has been belted by snow in the last day or two. We’ll see how ticket sales go there.

The reason these games need to get done so quickly is that the winners of the wild card games will be in action this weekend in the Conference Semifinals. New York hosts the Los Angeles Galaxy Sunday in the first leg of their two-game aggregate series. That gives New York about half a week to get tickets sold for a Sunday afternoon match that has to compete with the NFL for attention. The situation will be the same for the winner of the Rapids-Crew match — needing to sell tickets at breakneck speed for a Sunday home game.

It’s a tough sell — and, as much as MLS wants to make this new format work, the 10,017 fans that made it out to watch Dallas face New York gives the league some important lessons:

a) Next season, the regular season’s last day has to be Saturday. No Sunday games on the last weekend — that gives the host markets an extra day to do a ticket push.

b) The crossover format between East and West is confusing more fans than it wins over. If MLS is committed to the Conference system — and Commissioner Don Garber has assured us that it is — stick to it. Five teams in each conference make the playoffs. Easy. Seeds four and five in each conference face each other in playoff games. The likelihood is that one playoff game will be in the Eastern time zone while the other will go in Central, Mountain or Pacific time. That means you can schedule both games as a Thursday doubleheader, creating more hype and interest. With Dallas and Colorado both hosting games this season, there was no chance of stacking both games together on a Thursday evening.

This season, the crossovers made what should have been a cut-and-dried scenario all the more confusing. We had two wild cards from the East and two from the West. Easy solution? Have Columbus host New York, with the winner facing Sporting Kansas City, the No. 1 seed in the East. The Galaxy would get the winner of a Colorado-Dallas play-in game which, by the way, would be a much-easier-to-market rematch of last year’s MLS Cup. But, instead, we got convoluted crossovers.

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