Major League Soccer is considering a major change to the playoff format for 2023, club and league sources said The Athletic Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.
Sources said that the league, which will grow to 29 teams next season with the arrival of the expansion club St. Louis City SC, could increase the total number of playoff games from the current 13 to approximately 30 next year. The idea of moving to a 30-game postseason was also floated by MLS in a document distributed to clubs over the summer and obtained by The Athletic 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 a 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 single MLS regular-season and playoff game on its Apple TV streaming service starting in 2023.
MLS’s current 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.
That format will have to change to allow for 30 postseason contests. According to sources, one possible outcome would be a move to a World Cup-style playoff. Sources didn’t fully know the details of what that potential tournament would look like, but one hypothesis could go something like this:
- The top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the postseason
- These teams would be divided into four groups of four teams each
- Groups would be separated by conference; Western Conference teams would be grouped only with other Western Conference teams, and Eastern Conference teams would be grouped only with other Eastern Conference teams
- As is the case at 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 matches; the bottom two seeds would host one group stage match
- The top two teams from each group would advance to the eight-team, single-elimination knockout stage
- Like the group stage, the knockout stage would also be divided by conference
- The higher seeds would host the knockout stage games, with the Western Conference champion advancing to the MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion
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 a narrative; 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 foothold in the mainstream. Conversely, 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 the World Cup format this summer and that the proposed change was well received. Approval for such a change would need to be given by the full MLS board of directors, which is scheduled to meet next in mid-November in Brooklyn.
The league could 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 in its 27-year history. In its first 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 top eight teams in the league, regardless of division, advancing to the playoffs. The league stuck with this format for a while, but eventually equalized the number of teams from each conference that qualified and did away with the best-of-three system, switching to two-legged games. In 2019, the league introduced its current, simplified single-elimination format.
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