The 2017 NWSL playoffs were fine.
They were fine.
The three games we saw were sometimes boring, occasionally exciting, often brutal matches between 4 teams who all managed to keep themselves above the other 6 teams in the league at the end of a 24 game season.
Some people have called for the NWSL to eliminate playoffs all together and crown the Shield winner the season champion. Some have offered the idea of a home and away match in the semis and a single game in the final. Still others think the current set up is what should be used going forward.
I humbly bring forward another option to satisfy both the desire to see the playoffs and the need to separate the Shield winner from the second place team in terms of benefits from winning the regular season.
The NWSL should have 7 teams make the playoffs.
The format I would put forward is as follows.
Game 1 – Team 2 plays Team 7
Game 2 – Team 3 plays team 6
Game 3 – Team 4 plays team 5
Game 4: Team 1 plays winner of Game 3
Game 5: Winner of Game 1 vs Winner of Game 2
Championship: Winner of Game 4 vs Winner Game 5
So in 2017 it would have looked like this,
Game 1 – Portland vs FCKC @ Portland
Game 2 – Orlando vs Sky Blue @ Orlando
Game 3 – Chicago vs Seattle @ Chicago
Game 4: North Carolina vs (Chicago vs Seattle) @ NCC
Game 5: (Portland vs FCKC) vs (Orlando vs Sky Blue) @ Higher seed
Championship: Winner of Game 4 vs Winner Game 5 @ Predetermined
Now before you call me insane, and I am sure many of you will after you read this anyway, let me explain why in a 10 team league I think there should be a 7 team playoff hunt.
1. It gives the Shield winner a first round bye.
2. Gives more teams a chance to host a playoff game, gives more fans a chance to attend and helps fans who might not make it to the final make it to a playoff game.
3. Prevents the league from ever having a truly horrific playoff in terms of markets.
Make the Shield Mean Something
The NWSL shield is less than meaningless right now. Every team that has won the shield, no matter how dominant going into the playoffs, has fallen before grabbing the NWSL championship. Talk of the Curse of the Shield is treated like a fact and not something due to possible small sample size and better teams finishing lower on the table.
Giving the Shield winner both a week to recover from a 20 plus game season and an automatic trip to the second round of the playoffs would be a worthy reward for being the best team of the regular season. We saw the North Carolina Courage have a week turn around from losing Debinha in a meaningless, for them, end of the season match against the Orlando Pride to barely slipping past the Chicago Red Stars largely in part of having so little time to change their game place.
Shouldn’t the number one team in the league, if we have a playoff system, have more time than everyone else to rest, adjust and prepare? Outside of having no playoff it might be the best we can offer them.
More Games, More Fans, More Marketing
The NWSL has upped it’s marketing game in 2017. The Lifetime deal and the money it brought in have surely helped. But that doesn’t mean that all of the marketing woes of the NWSL were fixed with a pen stroke.
An additional round of games helps the NWSL’s marketing department in a few ways.
First there are more games so more of a chance to market the playoffs both on line and during the extra games. Three more games and an extra week of postseason gives the league more of a shot to market meaningful games during the season and to reach the biggest markets in the league. If you look at this year and the matchups that would appear in the first round; Portland vs FCKC, Orlando vs Sky Blue and Chicago vs Seattle, all the match ups would be held in great places to play, and they would involve teams that people would watch even if their team wasn’t playing. Both because they would watch each playoff game and because their team might face one of the winner next.
Second more teams get to host playoff games and more teams are involved during the playoffs. Believing your team has a shot to make the playoffs is what drives a lot of fan’s excitement for the playoffs. Knowing that even if you have to go up against the second ranked team in the league as the seventh ranked team, you still get a chance. You still have hope that maybe, just maybe, any given Sunday can happen this time. In a league that needs major matchups and excitement to help bring in the casual fans it keeps trying to go after, this could be a huge win for the league.
What Happens if the Big Teams Fall?
What happens in a practical way if we have an NWSL playoff with FCKC, where they are currently located, Sky Blue FC, the Washington Spirit and the Boston Breakers? No Portland. No Seattle. No Orlando or Chicago.
As laughable as it sounds right now there is a chance one day this happens and happens before any of those teams have the location to host an NWSL semi that is ready for Lifetime or the number of fans that would want to attend. The teams would either have to work to make their current locations work or maybe more likely host the game from a new location. A location that makes hosting that play off game a down step from the home field advantage you would have had.
On top of that in a ratings driven world, how does the NWSL and Lifetime market games that likely would bring in much lower numbers than the 147,000 that watched the 2017 NWSL final? Maybe they get 80,000 or 90,000 from fans loyal enough to watch because it’s the playoffs and these teams were good enough to make the playoffs. But it still would be a bad year and cost the league and Lifetime.
An expanded pool does mean one, maybe two, games over the course of the playoffs might not be held at the best locations. But it does lessen the chances all the teams in the playoffs have locations that aren’t ideal.
The system I’m putting forward isn’t perfect.
There will be some who say it’s just too many teams playing the playoffs. I get that. But I think saying it would make the regular season meaningless is an overstatement. It would mean what it does now, seeding. Seeding is key because the difference between seventh and fifth could be a tie breaker to go play the second best in the league or the forth.
With an extra round it could be said it puts the league at the greatest risk of having a good team go home early. But that has happened already in the NWSL playoffs and will always be a risk in any playoffs.
There will be some who say that the Shield winner should be the only winner, but to them I would say Americans would hardly be satisfied with a system that gives them a league with no championship game. They can adapt to a lot but we love championships.
And there will be some who say the home and away for the semis, or even the final, is a better fix. They might be right but we can still get the FCKC, Sky Blue FC, the Washington Spirit and the Boston Breakers playoff I spoke about and all the problems that comes with that.
All and all I say if we’re going to have a playoff, why not go all in on the type of playoff that would be engaging, exciting and show the world the hardest league in the world to get a title in is the NWSL?