by:  Ian Quillen

It’s Labor Day weekend, and with the new, compressed Major League Soccer schedule, the beginning of the push to the playoffs for most teams. Some 19 clubs are given at least a 13 percent probability of reaching the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight, or at least a puncher’s chance, to phrase it another way. In a league where five of 24 teams qualify for continental football and none are relegated, keeping that hope alive is by design.

The system has critics though, the most visible recently being superstar LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Two weeks ago, the winner of 11 European domestic league titles across Ajax, Inter Milan, Barcelona, A.C. Milan and Paris St. Germain hammered the playoff format, saying it’s harmful to players’ mentality.

“Here, you come in seventh place, you make the playoff, you win,” he said in an interview that included some colorful language. “So how do you create the mentality to be on your toes 24 hours? It’s very difficult.”

Ibrahimovic is correct that the mindset in MLS has not reached the same cut-throat level as the top rungs of Europe. The squad size limit of 30 players, and the reality that many teams don’t fill all their roster positions, points to a lack of the same competition for places with starters or a reserve USL side.

Attributing that difference to other easily visible differences, such as the playoff format, is understandable. It’s probably wrong, though. And it only takes a closer look at the evolution of MLS — and other leagues — to prove it.

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