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Atlanta United players find pros and cons in new MLS Cup playoffs format

The higher intensity gets positive reviews, but Atlanta finds issues with the schedule and unpredictability.

Oct 30, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) celebrates after a goal against Toronto FC in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 30, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta United defender Julian Gressel (24) celebrates after a goal against Toronto FC in the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

MARIETTA, Ga. — Now that they have been through it, Atlanta United players are comfortable sharing their thoughts on Major League Soccer’s new playoff format. 

Despite the fact that Atlanta won MLS Cup under the old format and crashed out in the Eastern Conference final this year, the reviews were not all bad.

“I liked it in a way where a lot more is at stake and you feel that extra intensity and bite to the game,” Julian Gressel said at Atlanta’s end-of-season press conference Thursday. “You are fighting for you life out there. That wasn’t the case, I thought, in the two-legged series.”

MLS announced prior to this season the new format would entail a single-game knockout tournament en route to the MLS Cup final. The second through seventh seeds in each conference would have to reel off four consecutive wins to lift the trophy, while the top seeds would receive a first-round bye and play a maximum of three games.

In years past, each conference’s third-through-sixth seeds met in first-round knockout games, and the winners advanced to the two-legged conference semifinals. The conference finals also were played over two legs before the Eastern and Western conference champions met in the winner-take-all MLS Cup final.

Goalkeeper Brad Guzan is not convinced the new format is the best way to determine MLS’ league champion.

“You see a lot of reports leading into the first round of games, and all the home teams won and this and that. It makes for an exciting game, but ultimately in professional sports, when you have a one-off game, anything can happen, regardless if you’re the top seed, the bottom-seeded, it doesn’t matter,” Guzan told reporters. “For me, I think it takes away a little bit of what you’ve done throughout the year in terms of, yes, you get to host a home game, but ultimately over the course of 90 minutes or 120 minutes, anybody can win a one-off game.

“I think the home and away was certainly better for the better teams. It’s more difficult for an underdog, if you will, to go and get a result over the course of two games as opposed to one, but it is what it is. I know the scheduling, the timing, wanting to finish before the November [FIFA international] fixture date. That wasn’t ideal either last year with going away for a fixture date to then come back and carry on the rest of the playoffs. I don’t know what the exact solution is, but for me, I think it takes away from the home and away a little bit.”

The ability to schedule an entire postseason without time off for an international break was one of the primary reasons for the format change. Last year, MLS’ regular season ended Oct. 28, and the postseason began three days later. The November FIFA window fell between the conference semifinals and finals, putting the playoffs on a two-week hiatus.

This year, the regular season ended Oct. 6, right before the October FIFA window, and Sunday’s MLS Cup final will wrap up ahead of the November window. Still, the new schedule is not perfect. Top seeds that enter the postseason on a long layoff could be at a disadvantage against opponents that already played and restarted the engine. Eastern Conference No. 1 New York City FC fell at home to Toronto FC in its first playoff game last month.

“I think they have a big issue on their hands when it comes to teams in first place, because to sit out 18 days is not fair,” Jeff Larentowicz said. “The league has a huge scheduling problem that is a general scheduling problem that they need to sort out. I understand why they have compacted the playoff schedule, but there were issues before and there are issues now.”

Everyone who spoke Thursday — Guzan, Larentowicz, Gressel and Michael Parkhurst — agreed the single-elimination tournament provides more action that could draw in casual fans. Parkhurst echoed Larentowicz’s concern over starting the playoffs after a two-week break, but said the new format gives more meaning to the regular season.

“I think that the games are probably really intense and competitive and with everything on the line, probably more entertaining for the casual fan. So, I think that’s a positive,” the retiring captain said. “I think that puts a little bit more emphasis on the regular season and needing to get home-field advantage — I mean I know the two MLS Cup finalists right now won away. For the most part, the home team has more success, so it does put more emphasis on the regular season.

“The downside is the first playoff game was straight after an international break, so building up to the first playoff game, we were fortunate that we weren’t missing that many players. That could have easily been half our team gone for international break. The preparation for the first playoff game, if it’s a one-and-done, that’s challenging, for sure. But I do like the one-game format.”

For Gressel, any negatives regarding scheduling and random chance favoring lower-seeded teams are outweighed by the type of games the single-elimination format produces. Both teams tend to play at a full tilt from the opening whistle. Ultimately, this is what MLS wants.

“You can also look at the fact that maybe we have a couple of calls go wrong and that’s why you lose the game,” he said. “Where that becomes a real issue in that moment and not saying we lost just because of the two questionable calls or different decisions from the referee. But ultimately those decisions have a big impact on the whole. It did for us in way, unfortunately, in way we didn’t like it.

“But I really like how the games were. I liked the intensity, even the other games I watched. There was a different feel to them. That’s true playoff feel and that’s fun.”

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