From its conception back in 1902 to the formalization of a Professional League in 1943 and up until the 1969-70 season, the Mexican Football League format was the same as it is in all the important and highest quality leagues in the world (European leagues especially); it consisted of a year-long regular season schedule, playing each team twice, once at home and once on the road. The team crowned champion was the one who ended the season with the most points. Simple as that. Fair and square. The real best team.
The 1970-71 season served as a watershed for the Mexican Football League; the start of the playoff era. It was the first time in league history where the champion would not be determined in the regular season, but instead through a new playoff format, where the top 2 teams at the end of the season would play a home-and-home series, and the winner on aggregate would be named champion. The following season would go on to include 2-legged semifinals matchups and just a single-elimination match for the final. This format would begin to vary as time went on, but the playoff format has remained in Mexico ever since.
The first time the current playoff format was introduced was during the 1975-76 season, where the Quarter-Final round was added on. The format was changed and played around with the following years until finally establishing the QF for good for the 1981-82 season, with the exception of the 1988-89 season. So, how does the current playoff format work? Out of the 18 teams competing (soon to be 20), the top 8 make the playoffs. There is a Quarter-Final round, a Semifinal, and a Final. All three rounds are played in a home-and-home style (or a two-legged tie).
But is the two-legged tie format the right way to go with the playoffs? We all know that the home-and-home series allows more money to be made on tickets and TV rights, but is it really keeping the best interest in mind for the quality of play and the players? I have to say SELL on this one.
Under the current format, the teams that reach the final are forced to scrunch six more games into a three-week period right after a 17-game schedule which usually includes two or three double feature weeks. This undoubtedly makes players more injury-prone because of the added fatigue. Another common complaint is the fact that the first leg loses the interest of many fans because the team that moves on to the next round will not be decided in that particular game. They’ll still have to sit through the entire second game anyway to see the outcome. What’s more is the teams know they’ll be meeting again in a matter of 72 hours, and whoever wins the series knows they will continue to play on short rest, so the first leg is more of a conservative, slow, and simply boring display, knowing there are still 90 more minutes to settle the series.
If that’s not enough, another common complaint among fans is that they feel when their team is the higher seed, they lose their playoff advantage by having to play the first leg on the road. In many cases, even though the first leg home team is a lower seed, they’re still playing at home and many times come away with a win, sometimes with a 2 or 3 goal-difference win, making it very difficult on the higher seed once their home game comes around. So, in short, many feel their team’s higher seed advantage is lost when this occurs, causing indifference if you’re one of the best teams during the regular season or not. Most of the best games are the second leg anyway with teams going all out with their seasons on the line.
Let’s have a look at what MLS did this past 2019 season. They changed their playoff format from a two-legged tie to a single elimination game, and to whoever watched, the results were more than obvious. We got to see so many hard-fought matchups and instant classics, such as the first round matchups featuring Seattle Sounders vs. FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union vs. NY Red Bulls, both ending 4-3 in extra time. And who could forget that classic Western Conference Semifinal between LA Galaxy and LA FC? An absolute thriller that ended in a 5-3 win for the Galaxy. Those are the types of matchups you get with single elimination games. Players give it their all during those 90 minutes.
What are the advantages? First off, the higher seed truly has the advantage by playing at home in the single elimination match, just like in the NFL. You also get to see a thrilling, jam-packed 90 minutes of action instead of having to go through a first, mostly meaningless game, only having to end up watching the second match of the series. The players will play less games, therefore less fatigue and more energy to run on the pitch instead of playing conservatively and trying to avoid injury. Unlike basketball, baseball, and hockey, soccer is not meant to be played in series. The nature of the sport and amount of effort exerted into one game is just too much to play so many games in so little time, similar to the NFL. This would also allow for extra-time to be played in every round in case of a draw after 90 minutes.
And so, as the Liga MX prepares for an eventual return to action, the discussion as to whether it is worth exploring a single elimination playoff due to the time constraints COVID-19 has caused is still being considered. I don’t think the league executives would be willing to make the switch to single elimination matches because of the economic cost that cancelling the other leg would represent, but if there was ever a time to test this idea which has been brought up many times in the past, it is now.