Major League Soccer is considering a massive change to its playoff format for 2023, club and league sources told The Athletic on Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the still-ongoing discussions.
The sources said that the league, which will grow to 29 teams next season with the arrival of expansion club St. Louis City SC, may increase the total number of playoff matches from the current 13 to roughly 30 next year. The idea of shifting to 30 postseason games is also spelled out by MLS in a document that was distributed to clubs over the summer and obtained by The Athletic on Tuesday.
Sources said that the league is considering expanding its playoff format in part so it can increase its overall inventory of postseason matches in the first year of its new media rights agreement with Apple. The league and Apple announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal in June which will see the tech giant show every single MLS regular season and playoff match on its Apple TV streaming service starting in 2023.
MLS’ current playoff format includes seven teams from each conference. All playoff matches are single-elimination, giving the league a total of 13 postseason matches, including MLS Cup.
That format will have to change in order to accommodate 30 postseason contests. According to the sources, one possible outcome would be a shift to a World Cup-style playoff tournament. The specifics of what that potential tournament would look like weren’t entirely 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
- Those teams would be split into four groups of four teams each
- Groups would be segregated by conference; Western Conference teams would only be grouped with fellow Western Conference teams and Eastern Conference teams would only be grouped with fellow Eastern Conference teams
- As is the case in the World Cup, each team would play three group stage matches, one each against the other three teams in the group
- the top two seeds in each group would host two group-stage games; the bottom two seeds would host one group-stage game
- The top two teams from each group would advance to an eight-team, single-elimination knockout stage
- Like the group stage, the knockout stage would also be divided by conference
- Higher seeds would host the knockout-stage matches, with the Western Conference champion advancing to MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion
The same source that outlined this potential new format also noted that MLS could structure such a tournament so that it plays multiple group-stage matches every night for nearly two weeks. the current MLS playoff format makes it hard for the league to generate narratives; blink and the entire postseason is over. Expanding the playoffs and having games on consecutive nights for a couple of weeks could theoretically allow the league to gain more of a mainstream foothold. Conversely, shifting 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. The sources said that a committee of high-ranking MLS owners and 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 be granted by the full MLS board of governors, which is next scheduled to meet in mid-November in Brooklyn.
The league could also potentially consider other formats that would get it closer to its target of 30 postseason matches — simply revising the current format to a two-legged system with a single championship game would result in a 25-game postseason schedule.
The league’s playoff format has changed multiple times throughout its 27-year history. In its earliest years, eight of the league’s 10 teams qualified for postseason play, and the league employed a best-of-three format for the conference semifinals and finals. They tweaked 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 stuck with this format for some time but eventually evened out the number of teams from each conference that qualified and did away with the best-of-three system, moving to two-legged matchups. In 2019, the league introduced its current, streamlined, single-elimination format.
(Top photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)