This year’s playoff format in MLS is significantly different from what long-time fans are accustomed to, and unfortunately, not in a positive matter.

Shortly before the commencement of the 2023 season, the league unveiled the details of an expanded postseason structure, marking a significant departure from the recent trend of single-game knockout matches.

MLS now grants playoff access to nine teams from each conference, allowing a substantial 62 percent of the league’s teams to participate, with more than half having the privilege of hosting at least one postseason game. Furthermore, a rather intricate addition to this format is the incorporation of a best-of-three round, a feature harkening back to the league’s early years.

This best-of-three round has historical roots, with MLS employing two different versions of it from 1996 to 2002, including the use of a 35-yard shootout to break ties and an approach allowing ties based on a “first to five points” system. Many argue that there is no legitimate competitive rationale for the recent postseason setup, particularly the introduction of a best-of-three first round, followed by single-game matches in the subsequent rounds.

Format did not come out until just before season

What is even more concerning is that the main driving force behind this innovation appears to be commercial in nature. Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer claims everything is about money and viewership for the league. What compounds the issue is that the league’s motivations have been evident to a multitude of individuals, including players, coaches, front-office personnel, and others who are willing to express their opinions candidly but anonymously, out of apprehension regarding potential repercussions.

The initial rationale behind this decision lies in the extended postseason. It provides Apple, the league’s streaming broadcaster, with a larger inventory of games to include in its package. Therefore, more fans will pay to watch games on MLS Season Pass.

In contrast, the preceding four years, with single-game rounds throughout, did indeed deliver some thrilling moments. Nonetheless, they also sparked discontent among personnel from lower-seeded teams. Clubs in the bottom half of qualification believed they deserved home games solely based on their playoff participation. These complainants have now had their demands met.

Carlos Vela takes exception to new MLS Cup Playoffs format

The top seven teams from each conference will secure direct entry to the first round. In contrast, the eighth and ninth-placed teams from both conferences engaged in a one-off game in the Wild Card matches. The eastern conference wild card winner was the New York Red Bulls. Out of the west, Sporting KC defeated the San Jose Earthquakes in a penalty shootout.

This arrangement will result in 16 teams progressing to Round One, where they will compete in a knockout format. These 16 teams will be divided into two groups of eight, maintaining the distinction between the Eastern and Western Conferences.

The team with the higher seed hosts the first game. Then, the lower-seeded team hosts the second game. In each game, there must be a winner. Therefore, if either leg ends in a draw after 90 minutes, the game goes straight to a penalty shootout. The team to win two games in a best-of-three series advances. After that, the conference semifinals, conference final and MLS Cup Final are one-off affairs.

Ultimately, the conference champions square off in the MLS Cup Championship finals. The MLS Cup final is on Dec. 9. The higher-seeded team hosts the final. Last season, that was Los Angeles FC, which won the competition.

LAFC captain Carlos Vela secured MLS Playoffs qualification under the old format in five out of six seasons in MLS. However, he appears uncertain about the league’s rationale for adding the opening series.

“It doesn’t make sense, but it is what it is. The league decided and we can only try to win the first two [games] to have time to prepare better for the next round”, he said at a press conference before the playoff opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps, via TUDN.