Major League Soccer is considering a massive change to its playoff format for 2023, club and league sources said The Athletics on Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the 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, could increase the total number of playoff games from the current 13 to around 30 next year. The idea of moving to 30 domestic games is also spelled out by MLS in a document distributed to clubs over the summer and obtained by The Athletics on 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 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 air every single MLS regular season and playoff game on its Apple TV streaming service beginning in 2023.
MLS’s current playoff format 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.
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 play-off tournament. The details of what that potential tournament would look like were not entirely known by the sources, but one speculated 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 would be separated by conference; Western Conference teams will be grouped only with fellow Western Conference teams and Eastern Conference teams will be grouped only with fellow Eastern Conference teams
- As 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 matches; the bottom two seeds will host one group stage game
- The top two teams from each group would advance to an eight-team, single-elimination stage
- Like the group stage, the knockout stage would also be divided by conference
- Higher seeds will host the knockout stage games, with the Western Conference champion advancing to the MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion
The same source that detailed 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. By expanding the playoffs and holding games on consecutive nights for several weeks, the league could theoretically gain more of a mainstream foothold. Conversely, the shift to a playoff format unique to both soccer and the North American sports landscape may confuse casual fans or newcomers to the league.
Again, the changes are not final yet. The sources said 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 may also consider other formats that would bring it closer to its target 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 postseason schedule.
The league’s playoff format has changed several times throughout 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, advancing to the playoffs. The league stuck with this format for some time, but eventually equalized the number of teams from each conference that qualified and did away with the best-of-three system, moving to two-legged games. In 2019, the league introduced its current, streamlined, single-elimination format.
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