The MLS Cup Playoffs have never been set in stone. In the league’s 27 seasons, no fewer than four playoff formats have been used to varying degrees of success. The current system, which features a single elimination format with seven teams from each conference, is easy to understand and follow but could definitely use some improvement, at least according to MLS.
On Wednesday, it was leaked that MLS is considering making alterations to the postseason format beginning next year. The plan would expand the playoffs from 13 matches, including the final, to as many as 30. It's heavily rumored to be a World Cup-style tournament involving a group stage followed by a knockout round.
Been a while since I've seen an idea so universally derided by MLS fans.Can't say I have an opinion — worth pointing out tho that this format is far from unheard of... many leagues, globally, that have postseason play employ a similar format. MLS' knockout-style is the rarity.
— Pablo Iglesias Maurer (@MLSist) October 26, 2022
MLS is still a work in progress, on and off the field. It remains an evolving business trying to grow and establish a foothold in a very crowded/complicated space. It also wants to provide its new partner Apple with as much value as possible. A playoff change may do this. https://t.co/ZhLod73w9n— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) October 26, 2022
At the heart of this change is the hope to increase the sport's marketability as MLS begins its streaming partnership with Apple TV. With that in mind, we’ve come up with a few ideas for some new playoff formats that we think would spice up the sport and get people to tune in.
5 new MLS playoff formats
— Pablo Iglesias Maurer (@MLSist) October 26, 2022
#5. Best-of-seven series
MLS wants more games, so let's give them more games. As a result, the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs would have to go down, so let’s say the top four teams from each conference advance to the postseason.
From there, the one and four seeds and two and three seeds will face each other in a best-of-seven series much like the NBA, MLB and NHL. Winners of each series face off again in a seven-game conference final, followed by MLS Cup in yet another best-of-seven series.
American sports fans love a good series, and MLS wants more games so this could be the best of both worlds. With a maximum of 49 playoff matches and a minimum of 28, there's no shortage of games to promote from a league perspective — the only potential issues would be injuries, exhaustion, disinterest among fans, logistics, transportation, time, etc.
But other than that, it'd be great!
#4. Bubble/weekend tournament
Everyone loved 2020, right? Right??
This would be a little different from "MLS is Back" as this tournament would allow fans to be in attendance. The structure we have in mind harkens back to youth tournaments packed into a tense but thrilling weekend.
MLS would determine beforehand a neutral site for this weekend-long festival of American soccer. The top six teams from each conference would advance to the tournament and be drawn into four groups of three, where each team is guaranteed two matches.
From there, each group will play one match on Friday afternoon, with the remaining games played the following day from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. The clubs that finish first in their groups advance to the conference finals on Sunday, which will then be followed by MLS Cup in the evening.
Don’t worry about the fact that fans of 12 different teams would need to travel across the country to a central location, or that no team would want to play four games in two or even three days. It’s not a problem that viewership would be horrendous for a 6 a.m. kickoff or that it would actually decrease the number of total games played from the current format.
The 2023 MLS Cup Weekend Bubble Playoffs, which start at 2 p.m. on Friday and end at 10 p.m. on Sunday, would be incredible and there would be absolutely no downsides whatsoever.
#3. White elephant/fantasy collusion
For this idea, the postseason format would remain the same, except, following the commencement of the regular season, every team would be able to steal one player from another side that qualified for the playoffs. The Supporters’ Shield winners would get the first pick, followed by second place and so on. The caveat? Once a player has been taken, they cannot be taken again.
Let’s use this season as an example. LAFC would have the first pick and could have taken Hany Mukhtar from Nashville. As a result, Mukhtar would subsequently not be allowed to be picked by any other clubs.
In addition to the White Elephant Draft, teams would be able to add up to three players from teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. It’s just like every fantasy league ever, when the worst team in the league gives all its best players to the team that barely scraped into the playoffs, allowing them to suddenly become unstoppable.
The difference here is that it’s encouraged, and now suddenly LAFC has Mukhtar, Gaga Slonina, Claudio Bravo and Lucas Zelarayán. Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
#2. Random seeding
Do you want chaos and unpredictability? Great! Let's do exactly that and then some!
Every year the commissioner asks Siri to pick a random number from two to 28. Whatever number is picked determines how many teams qualify for the playoffs. After that’s settled, the teams that qualify are then entered into a draw and the playoff bracket is filled in at random. Every team from the Supporters’ Shield winners to the last team in all has the same chance of being picked for any given spot.
“What if there’s an odd number of teams? This is a great idea, I absolutely love chaos in every form — I too put all of my favorite songs, regardless of genre, into one playlist and hit shuffle — but shouldn’t the higher seed be rewarded with a bye?” I hear you asking. Shut up. Who are you? Who cares what you think? MLS needs to increase its marketability to appease its new Apple TV overlords, so it's up to Siri now.
#1. Scrap the playoffs, but keep the MLS Cup final
Satire and hyperbole can be fun ways to cope with changing times, but ultimately, it’s important to give genuine, serious input to help the situation. If MLS is interested in changing its playoff structure to increase marketability, it may be worth considering getting rid of the playoffs entirely.
MLS is unique within the global soccer landscape in that it awards its championship after the playoffs and not after the regular season. This backloading of important fixtures ensures that a champion is crowned in a specific match and not during a random regular season game. As a result, the regular season currently means very little and fans are not incentivized to tune in until the playoffs.
If MLS were to eliminate the playoffs, every game from February to October would be important. Keeping MLS Cup between the Eastern and Western Conference would still be possible, with the Supporters’ Shield winners hosting the match. The regular season would still mean something, but mediocrity would no longer be rewarded.
It would also ensure that the disparity between the teams in the East and West, or strength of schedule, would be negligible as both conferences still send their best teams to the final. One final match, between two of the best sides in MLS, ensures a bit of chaos, while still prioritizing the regular season. MLS, make it happen.