MLS announces updated 2023 playoff format

Major League Soccer announced their updated playoff format today, four days before the start of the 2023 regular season. From the press release:

Following Decision Day on Oct. 21, the top seven teams from each conference will automatically qualify to the Round One Best-of-3 series while the next two teams in each conference standings will qualify for a single-elimination Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Wild Card match. The winners of each Wild Card game will earn a spot in the Round One Best-of-3 series.

The expanded format will deliver even more must-win matches, as every game in the Round One Best-of-3 series will have a winner and a loser. With the addition of the Wild Card games and the Round One Best-of-3 series, the playoffs will see up-to 24 must-win matches ahead of MLS Cup presented by Audi in 2023 (compared with 12 in 2022).

All 16 teams qualifying for the Round One Best-of-3 series will earn at least one home playoff game with the higher seed hosting the first match, the lower seed hosting the second match, before returning, if necessary, to the higher seed’s venue for the final deciding game.

Following the excitement and drama of the expanded Round One, the pressure doesn’t let up, as the Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals, and MLS Cup presented by Audi will continue to be single elimination, win-or-go-home matches hosted by the team with the better regular season record.

While providing the highest advantage to each conference No. 1 seed, through the new playoff format, the higher a team’s regular season finish in the standings, the more advantage that team will see throughout the playoffs. Teams will need to fight from match day one through Decision Day for the best chance to capture an MLS Cup title.

In addition to the advantage earned in the MLS postseason, higher MLS regular season ranking is rewarded with greater homefield advantage and grouping with lower seeded LIGA MX opponents during Leagues Cupgroup play, while the MLS Cup champion earns a bye past the group stage all together.

Postseason Match Schedule
The postseason will kick off with the two Wild Card matches on Oct. 25-26 and Round One Best-of-3 series matches from Oct. 28-Nov. 12. The Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals will be played between Nov. 25-Dec. 3.  Major League Soccer’s championship match, MLS Cup presented by Audi, will be played on Dec. 9.

Every Postseason Game, Everywhere on MLS Season Pass
MLS Season Pass will feature every match of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs as well as MLS Cup presented by Audi, all in one place, with no blackouts.  All matches will feature commentary in either English or Spanish, while matches involving Canadian teams will also offer commentary in French.

Fans in the U.S. and Canada will also have the option to select their home team’s radio for broadcast audio on the Apple TV app where available.

Select playoff games, including MLS Cup, will also be available through FOX Sports in the U.S. and TSN and RDS in Canada. Linear programming schedules and match selections for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs will be announced at a later date.

Postseason Review Process
Major League Soccer, in concert with the MLS Product Strategy Committee, undertook a review of the playoff format beginning in 2021 to deliver an enhanced playoff format that would provide fans with more games of consequence and better reward regular season results while maintaining the best elements from the single-elimination format. Incorporating fan research and feedback, MLS engaged a third-party expert in the global sports industry to support the process with data and analysis.

Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Format

Qualification:
Seeds 1-7 in each conference will automatically qualify to the Round One Best-of 3-series.
Seeds 8-9 in each conference will qualify for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Wild Card matches.

Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs Wild Card Matches (2 games)

  • Two single-game elimination matches hosted by the higher seed.
  • If the score of a Wild Card game is tied at the end of regulation, no extra time will be played, teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner.
  • The winner of each Wild Card match will advance to the Round One Best-of-3 series to face the conference No. 1 seed.

Eastern Conference Wild Card Match

  • No. 8 vs. No. 9

Western Conference Wild Card Match

  • No. 8 vs. No. 9

Round One Best-of-3 Series (16-24 games)

  • Every Round One game will have a winner; no ties, no aggregate score.
  • The matches will be hosted in a home-away-home format:
    • Match 1: higher seed hosts
    • Match 2: lower seed hosts
    • Match 3: higher seed hosts
  • If a match is tied at the end of regulation, no extra time will be played, teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner.
  • The first team to win two matches will advance.
  • Four teams from each conference will advance to the Conference Semifinals.

Eastern Conference Round One Best-of-3 Series

  • No. 1 vs. No. 8 or 9
  • No. 2 vs. No. 7
  • No. 3 vs. No. 6
  • No. 4 vs. No. 5

Western Conference Round One Best-of-3 Series

  • No. 1 vs. No. 8 or 9
  • No. 2 vs. No. 7
  • No. 3 vs. No. 6
  • No. 4 vs. No. 5

Conference Semifinals (4 games)

  • Single-game elimination matches, hosted by the higher seed.
  • If the score of a Conference Semifinal game is tied at the end of regulation, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety. If the score is still tied at the end of the two extra time periods, teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner.
  • Conference Semifinal winners will advance to the Conference Final.

Eastern Conference Semifinals

  • Winner of No. 1 vs. No. 8/9 series vs. winner of No. 4 vs. No. 5 series
  • Winner of No. 3 vs. No. 6 series vs. winner of No. 2 vs. No. 7 series

Western Conference Semifinals

  • Winner of No. 1 vs. No. 8/9 series vs. winner of No. 4 vs. No. 5 series
  • Winner of No. 3 vs. No. 6 series vs. winner of No. 2 vs. No. 7 series

Conference Final (2 games)

  • Single-elimination match hosted by the higher seed.
  • If the score of a Conference Final game is tied at the end of regulation, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety. If the score is still tied at the end of the two extra time periods, teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner.
  • The winner of each Conference Final match will advance to MLS Cup presented by Audi.

Eastern Conference Final

  • Highest advancing seed vs. Lowest advancing seed

Western Conference Final

  • Highest advancing seed vs. Lowest advancing seed

MLS Cup presented by Audi (1 game)

  • A single match hosted by the higher seed.
  • If the score of the game is tied at the end of regulation, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety. If the score is still tied at the end of the two extra time periods, teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner.

MLS Cup presented by Audi

  • Eastern Conference Champion vs. Western Conference Champion

A couple thoughts on the announcement.

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First, it’s absolutely insane to be announcing a complete overhaul to the entire playoff structure just *checks notes* four days before the season starts. Phil Neville was absolutely right in his criticism. And then Inter Miami banned The Athletic for quoting him…

MLS decided to fix a playoff system that was perfectly fine. The prior format – perhaps too generously – allowed 14 teams to get into the postseason (already half the league), but the single-elimination system meant that each of the 13 playoff matches were must win and generally delivered high-quality entertainment.

Allowing a staggering 62% of teams in the league completely dilutes the value of the regular season. Teams don’t really have to be ambitious or even good to get into the playoffs anymore. “Making the playoffs” was already a low bar that was frequently touted as a measure of success by clubs, and now it means even less.

On one hand, it makes sense for Apple to want more must-win games to broadcast. But by twisting the format and adding more playoff games, it devalues the 950+ regular season games that make up the bulk of the product they’re selling.

For a league that consistently preaches its ambition to be a top league in the world and a league of choice, waiting until the last minute to overhaul the system is a bad look. And for a league that is desperate for tradition and authenticity, re-inventing the playoff structure for the ninth time in 27 seasons undermines that tradition.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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