MLS considering significant overhaul of playoff format: Sources

Major League Soccer is considering a major overhaul of its playoff structure for 2023, team and league sources said. The Athletic on Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.

Sources said the league, which will expand to 29 teams next year with the arrival of expansion team St. The idea of ​​switching to the last 30 games was also explained by MLS in a document distributed to clubs during the summer and obtained by The Athletic on Tuesday.

Sources said the league is considering expanding its playoff format in part so it can add to its postseason schedule in the first year of its 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 game and playoff game on its service. The broadcast of Apple TV starts in 2023.

The current MLS structure includes 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 structure will have to change in order to accommodate 30 postseason contests. According to sources, one possible outcome would be a change to a World Cup-style tournament. The exact details of what the competition could look like were not fully known by the sources, but one speculated that the format could look something like this:

  • The top eight teams from each conference would qualify for the postseason
  • Those teams would be divided into four groups of four teams each
  • The teams would be divided by meeting; Western Conference teams would only be grouped with Western Conference teams and Eastern Conference teams would only be grouped with other Eastern Conference teams.
  • As with the World Cup, each team would play three group stage matches, each against the other three teams in the group.
  • The top two seeds in each group would host two group games; the two lowest seeds would receive one group game
  • The top two teams from each group would advance to the eight-team, single-elimination tournament.
  • Like the group stage, the core stage will also be divided into sessions
  • The top seeds would host the knockout stage games, with the Western Conference runner-up advancing to the MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion.
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The same source who explained this new format also noted that MLS could create such a tournament to play multiple round-robin games every night for about two weeks. The current structure of MLS makes it difficult for the league to produce stories; blink and the entire postseason is over. Extending the playoffs and having games on consecutive nights for several weeks would allow the league to gain higher standings. On the other hand, switching to a playoff format that will be unique to soccer and the North American sports scene can be confusing for players or newcomers to the league.

Again, the changes are not over yet. Sources said that a committee of senior MLS owners and officials discussed the structure of the World Cup this summer and that the proposed change was considered positive. Approval of such a change would have to be given by the full MLS board of governors, which will meet in mid-November in Brooklyn.

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The league is likely to consider other formats that will bring it closer to its target of 30 finals – reforming the current format to a two-legged system with one championship game could result in 25-game postseason schedule.

The league’s playoff structure has changed many times in its 27-year history. In its first years, eight of the league’s 10 teams qualified for the postseason, and the league used a better than third for the conference semifinals and finals. They changed the system in the year 2000 when they divided the league into three groups, and the top eight teams of the league, regardless of division, advanced to the first. The league held on to this system for a while but eventually adjusted the number of teams from each conference that qualified and eliminated the best-of-three system, moving to two-legged matchups. In 2019, the league introduced its current, structured, single-elimination format.

(Top photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)


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