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How to Fix the MLS Playoff Format

Major League Soccer’s 2023 playoffs haven’t exactly been broken, but they could be better. Let us tell you the ways.

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Credit: Thad Bell

The MLS Cup Playoffs aren’t broken. They are just a little weird and they could be better. It could be argued they were perfect for the last few years with their newly adopted single-elimination format making every game count.

Then, Major League Soccer signed a deal with Apple, and they¬†needed more games, so they tinkered. It would be a lie to say the first round wasn’t fun. The three-game format was a bit of a callback to the MLS of yesterday when those multi game series were commonplace. However, they end in the first round and its single elimination from there out.

Before we go any further, I will say this isn’t another rant about MLS letting 18, or over 62 percent of the teams, into the playoffs. There shouldn’t be 18 teams of course, even if that left Sporting Kansas City out. The results of the first-round sort of showed that with every underdog not named Sporting KC being eliminated. Besides, I’ve railed against the bloated playoff field for years. We’ll skip that for today.

Instead, let’s focus on the parts of the playoffs no one seems to like. The inconsistent format of three games one round and one the next, the weird stagger between games and then the massive international break in the middle of the playoffs.

That Dang International Break

This is a tough problem and I’m not sure it’s entirely fixable with a playoff field this large. There are three international breaks towards the end of the MLS season and the start of the playoffs: September 4-12, October 9-17 and November 13-21. You may recall the delay before Decision Day as well.

It was made all that much worse by the three-game playoff format as over half of the teams in the competition experienced breaks nearing or at three weeks: Kansas City, Orlando City, Philadelphia Union, FC Cincinnati and LAFC. Of those teams, only LAFC and Cincy advanced into the Conference Finals with the other three teams being eliminated in the semifinals.

Schedule Staggering Nonsense

Something that didn’t impact Sporting KC fans, but hit a lot of other teams, were weird gaps between games. Sporting and St. Louis City SC played on three consecutive weekends. Well, they would have if St. Louis had not been swept. On the other hand, the Columbus Crew and Atlanta United didn’t play their first-round game until Wednesday, Nov. 1st, then they played Tuesday the 7th and Sunday the 12th. Only one weekend game. Weird.

On the other hand, the New England Revolution and Philadelphia Union opened the first-round on Saturday, Oct. 28th and didn’t play again for 11 days until Wednesday, Nov. 8th.

This is all seemingly in an effort to have no games overlap, so everyone can watch all the games. There is something to be said for that after a regular season that left fans struggling to watch more than one full game in a night with constant overlap. However, it feels like an overcorrection.

The Three Game Format

The opening round being three games seems to be to guarantee Apple more playoff games and give more MLS teams a home game. First, if you were bad in the regular season, you don’t deserve a home game (sorry KC, though it was super fun). And second, and perhaps more importantly, wouldn’t you rather see better teams play a three game playoff series? If you need more games, why not start the three-game series in the second round? More of them will probably go three rounds, versus the five sweeps that happened.

This could just be sour grapes because I’d like to see Sporting KC play again after the controversial end to their playoff run. But I genuinely think seeing another game or two from Cincy/Philly, LAFC/Seattle and Kansas City/Houston would be good times. Less so for Orlando/Columbus, but even that game had some nice drama.

The Unavailable Fix

Go back to single elimination. Apple likely has a contract guaranteeing them a certain number of games. So, let’s assume we can’t do that.

The Bad Fix

Another solution, which I hate, is the return to two-game home and away series. Look back at MLS seasons of the past to see why. There were some cagey, boring games. Lots of teams playing for 0-0 draws in one of the legs of the series. And I hate away goals. It causes home teams to play conservative to not give up those goals and takes the joy and wild nature out of some of the games.

The Best Available Fix

The solution involves later three-game series and midweek games. I don’t like midweek games (and they don’t favor Sporting KC as currently constructed), but it’s the only way to avoid some of the massive breaks we experienced in this year’s playoff format. And in this construction, teams are on even rest at least.

In my proposal, assuming I can’t lower it below 18 teams, the Wild Card round stays the same. Then, the first round is single elimination. That puts the worst seeded team on the road with one chance to advance and the one seed faces the 8/9 winner on short rest still. If that happened this year, literally nothing would have changed as all the teams that won the first game, won the series. All those games happen the first weekend. That would have been October 26-28th. Putting a couple games on Friday would cut down on some overlap too and avoid games as late as the next Wednesday.

As the playoffs are currently constructed, there are eight first round matchups with a possibility of 24 total games (though we ended up with 19 since there were five sweeps). With my changes, you are down 11 games (or up to 16) immediately.

Then you move to the three-game format. That way, if we are forcing extra games, at least they’ll be against higher quality teams that have earned the chance to have one stinker playoff game but still be alive (unless that stinker is in round one, it’s imperfect). That would mean the four round-two matchups would be played over a week starting Nov 3rd through Nov 12th. Three games in one week, if needed. Then the international break hits. A possibility of 12 games versus four now, you’ve got up to eight of the lost games back.

Rinse and repeat in the conference finals. Four teams, two matchups, over a week from Nov 25th through December 2nd. Up to four more games made up, so we’re a little short, but we have potentially 12 games back and I truly believe there would be less sweeps.

MLS Cup is still one game, December 9th. It’s tempting to make this a three-game series, but there would be basically no offseason for your best teams. Additionally, it’s not uncommon in soccer/football to have one game decide everything when a tournament is involved.

In Conclusion

This could theoretically have the same exact number of games, but probably just a couple less. I don’t love the compressed schedule, but all the teams are dealing with it. And if you pull off the sweep, you get a little extra rest instead of a massive amount of extra rest. It’s not a punishment to sweep your opponent.

Major League Soccer has no problem constantly tinkering with their format. Someone send this to Don Garber!

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