Major League Soccer is considering a major overhaul of its playoff format for 2023, club and league sources say. Athletics on Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.
The league, which will grow to 29 teams next season with the addition of expansion club St. Louis City SC, is likely to increase the total number of playoff games from the current 13 to 30 next year, sources said. MLS also outlined the idea of moving to 30 postseason games in a document distributed and received by clubs over the summer. Athletics on Tuesday.
Sources said the league is considering expanding its playoff format so it can increase its overall postseason game inventory during the first year of the 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 watch every MLS regular season and playoff game on its Apple TV streaming service starting in 2023.
MLS’s current playoff format includes seven teams from each conference. All playoff games are single-elimination, giving the league 13 postseason games, including the MLS Cup.
That format would have to be changed to accommodate 30 postseason games. According to sources, one possible outcome would be a move to a World Cup-style play-off tournament. The sources did not fully know the specifics of what that potential tournament would look like, but one model hypothesized that it could go something like this:
- The top eight teams from each conference qualify for the postseason
- The teams are divided into four groups of four teams each
- Groups are separated by summit; Western Conference teams are grouped only with other Western Conference teams, and Eastern Conference teams are grouped only with other Eastern Conference teams.
- As in the World Cup, each team will play three matches in the group stage, one each against the other three teams in the group.
- The top two seeds in each group will host two group-stage matches; The bottom two seeds will host one group-stage game
- The top two teams from each group will advance to an eight-team, single-elimination knockout stage
- The group stages as well as the knockout stages will be divided by conference
- The higher seeds will host the knockout stage matches, with the Western Conference champion advancing to the MLS Cup against the Eastern Conference champion.
The same source that outlined this potential new format noted that MLS could structure such a tournament with multiple group-stage games played each night over nearly two weeks. The current MLS playoff format makes it difficult for the league to generate narratives; Blink and the entire postseason is over. Expanding the playoffs and holding games on consecutive nights for several weeks would theoretically allow the league to gain a mainstream foothold. Conversely, the transition to a playoff format unique to both soccer and the North American sports landscape can confuse casual fans or newcomers to the league.
Again, the changes aren’t over yet. Sources say a committee of high-level MLS owners and officials discussed the World Cup-style format this summer and viewed the proposed change favorably. Approval of such a change would have to be given by the full MLS governing body, which next meets in mid-November in Brooklyn.
The league could consider other formats that could get closer to the goal of 30 postseason games — 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 early 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. In 2000 they changed that system by dividing the league into three divisions, with the league’s top eight teams advancing to the playoffs regardless of division. The league stuck with this format for a while, but eventually equalized the number of qualified teams from each conference and moved away from the best-of-three system to two-legged games. In 2019, the league introduced its current, streamlined, single-elimination format.
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