MLS considering significant overhaul of playoff format: Sources

Major League Soccer is considering a major change to the playoff format for 2023, club and league sources said The Athletic on Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.

Sources said the league, which will grow to 29 teams next season with the arrival of expansion club St. Louis City SC, could increase the total number of playoffs from the current 13 to approximately 30 next year. The idea of ​​moving to 30 postseason games was also floated by MLS in a document distributed to clubs over the summer and obtained by The Athletic on Tuesday.

Sources said the league is considering expanding its playoff format in part so it can increase its overall inventory of postseason games in the first year of its new media rights deal with Apple. The league and Apple announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal in June that will see the tech giant show every MLS regular season and playoff game on the Apple TV streaming service starting in 2023.

The current MLS playoff format features seven teams from each conference. All playoff games are single-elimination, giving the league a total of 13 postseason games, including the MLS Cup.

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That format will have to change to accommodate 30 postseason contests. According to sources, one possible outcome would be a move to a World Cup-style playoff tournament. Sources didn’t know exactly what that potential tournament would look like, but it’s assumed the format could look something like this:

  • The top eight teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason
  • Those teams would be divided into four groups of four teams each
  • The groups would be separated by conference; Western Conference teams would only be grouped with other Western Conference teams, and Eastern Conference teams would only be grouped with Eastern Conference teams
  • As is the case at the World Cup, each team would play three group stage games, one each against the other three teams in the group.
  • The first two seeds in each group will host two group stage games; the two bottom seeds will host one group stage match
  • The top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout stage with eight teams, one elimination each
  • Like the group stage, the knockout stage would also be divided by conference
  • The higher seeds would host the knockout stage matches, with the Western Conference champion advancing to the MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion
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The same source that outlined this potential new format also stated that MLS could structure such a tournament to play multiple group stage matches every night for nearly two weeks. The current MLS playoff format makes it difficult for the league to generate narratives; blink and the entire postseason is over. Expanding the playoffs and playing games on back-to-back nights for several weeks could theoretically allow the league to gain more of a foothold in the mainstream. On the other hand, moving to a playoff format that would be unique to both soccer and the North American sports landscape could confuse casual fans or newcomers to the league.

Again, the changes are not final yet. Sources said a committee of high-ranking MLS owners and officials discussed a World Cup-style format this summer and that the proposed change was met with positive reviews. Approval for such a change would have to come from the full MLS Board of Governors, which is scheduled to meet in mid-November in Brooklyn.

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The league could also potentially consider other formats that would bring it closer to its goal of 30 postseason games—simply revising the current format to a two-game system with one championship game would result in a 25-game postseason schedule.

The league’s playoff format has changed several times over its 27-year history. In its earliest years, eight of the league’s 10 teams qualified for postseason play, and the league used a best-of-three format for the conference semifinals and finals. They changed that system in 2000 when they split the league into three divisions, with the league’s top eight teams, regardless of division, advancing to the playoffs. The league kept this format for a while, but eventually equalized the number of teams from each conference that qualified and dropped the best-of-three system, moving to a doubleheader. In 2019, the league introduced its current, simplified single-elimination format.

(Top photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)



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