MLS considering significant overhaul of playoff format: Sources

Major League Soccer is considering a massive change to its playoff format for 2023, club and league sources said. Athletics 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. The idea of ​​moving to a 30-game postseason has also been floated by MLS in a document distributed to clubs over the summer and obtained by Athletics 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 the new media rights deal with Apple. The league and Apple announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion streaming deal in June that will see the tech giant show every MLS regular season and playoff game on its Apple TV streaming service starting at the year 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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This 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. The specifics of what that potential tournament would look like were not fully known by the sources, but one hypothesized that a format could look something like this:

  • The top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the postseason
  • These teams will be divided into four groups of four teams each
  • Groups will be divided by conference; Western Conference teams will be grouped only with Western Conference teams and Eastern Conference teams will be grouped only with Eastern Conference teams
  • As is the case at the World Cup, each team would play three group stage matches, one against the other three teams in the group.
  • The top two seeds in each group would host two group stage matches; the bottom two seeds would set up a match in the group stage
  • The top two teams from each group will advance to an eight-team, single-elimination stage
  • Like the group stage, the knockout stage would also be divided into conferences
  • The higher seeds will host the knockout stage games, with the Western Conference champion advancing to the MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion
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The same source who described this potential new format also noted that MLS could structure such a tournament to play multiple group stage games 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 holding games on back-to-back nights for several weeks could theoretically allow the league to gain more of a common ground. Conversely, the move 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 yet final. Sources said a committee of owners and high-ranking MLS officials discussed the World Cup-style format this summer and that the proposed change was viewed favorably. 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-legged system with a single championship game would result in a 25-game schedule postseason game.

The league’s playoff format has changed many 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 modified that system in 2000 when they split the league into three divisions, with the league’s top eight teams, regardless of division, making the playoffs. The league stuck with 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 two-game playoffs. In 2019, the league introduced its current, simplified, single-elimination format.

(Feature photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)



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