MLS considering significant overhaul of playoff format: Sources

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

The sources said the league, which will grow to 29 teams next season with the arrival of expansion club St. Louis City SC, can increase the total number of playoff games from the current 13 to around 30 next year. The idea of ​​moving to a 30-game postseason is also spelled out by MLS in a document distributed to clubs over the summer and obtained by The Athlete on Tuesday.

Sources said the league is considering expanding the playoff format in part so it can increase its overall slate of postseason games during the first year of the new media rights deal with Apple. The league and Apple announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal in June that will see the tech giant show every MLS regular season and playoff game on its 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 would have to change to accommodate 30 postseason contests. According to the sources, one possible outcome would be a move to a World Cup-style playoff tournament. The details of what this potential tournament would look like were not fully known by the sources, but one speculated that a format could look something like this:

  • The top eight teams from each conference will qualify for the postseason
  • These teams will be divided into four groups of four teams each
  • Teams will be separated by conference. Western Conference teams will only be grouped with other Western Conference teams and Eastern Conference teams will be grouped with other Eastern Conference teams only
  • As in 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 will host two matches in the group stage. The bottom two seeds would host a group stage game
  • The top two teams from each group will advance to an eight-team, single-elimination knockout stage
  • Like the group stage, the knockout stage will be divided by conference
  • The higher seeds would host the knockout stage games, with the Western Conference champion advancing to the MLS Cup over 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 create narratives. blink and the entire postseason is over. Extending the playoffs and holding games on back-to-back nights for a few weeks could theoretically allow the league to gain a larger base. Conversely, the move to a playoff format that would be unique to both soccer and the North American sports landscape could be confusing to casual fans or newcomers to the league.

Again, the changes aren’t final yet. The sources said a committee of high-level owners and MLS officials discussed the World Cup format this summer and that the proposed change was viewed positively. Approval for such a change would have to be granted by the full MLS Board of Governors, which is scheduled to meet in mid-November in Brooklyn.

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The league could also possibly 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 league game would result in a 25-game postseason schedule.

The league’s playoff format has changed many times over its 27-year history. In its first years, eight of the league’s 10 teams qualified for postseason play, and the league used best-of-three for the conference semifinals and finals. They modified this system in 2000, when they split the league into three divisions, with the top eight teams in the league, regardless of division, qualifying for 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-legged games. In 2019, the league introduced its current, improved single-elimination format.

(Top photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)


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