Analysis / MLS

Diving into the new MLS playoff format

Photo: Stephen Speer

Winston Churchill famously exclaimed, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Major League Soccer has set out to build upon its ever-changing playoff format by adding two additional teams per conference, along with a round one, best-of-three series. To the ire of an outspoken Phil Neville and many fans alike, these significant alterations were announced less than one week before the season was set to kick off.

The changes

Under the updated system, the top nine teams in each conference will earn a playoff berth. The eighth- and ninth-seeded teams in each conference will play a single-elimination wild card match, with the winners of each advancing to round one along with the top seven teams. This first round will be a best-of-three series, with the four winners advancing to the conference semifinals, where the familiar single-game elimination will return for the remainder of the route to the MLS Cup.

The playoffs will take place as follows:

  • Wild card matches: Oct. 25-26
  • Round one, best-of-three series matches: Oct. 28-Nov. 12
  • Conference semi-finals and conference finals: Nov. 25–Dec. 3
  • MLS Cup Final: Dec. 9
Is it too much soccer?

In a season where there was already going to be a record amount of games played, it begs the question — was adding the additional teams and a best-of-three series to the playoff structure necessary?

An argument could certainly be posed that a two-game home and away leg series would have been better suited. A home and away leg format — with goal aggregate and away goals as a tie-breaker — has proven to be successful in the sport. It’s concise, requires less travel for the clubs and its application in many competitions across the globe makes it more approachable for the average soccer fan to pick up on. Not to mention, MLS used this playoff format for the conference semifinals and conference finals from 2012-2018.

That said, the MLS could be channeling its roots with the best-of-three series, which was used in MLS for its first four seasons in 1996-1999. However, the best-of-three format is typically perceived as an American sports phenomenon, not commonly used in other professional soccer leagues around the globe.

Be it good or bad, the change is a further Americanisation of a typical soccer playoff format and is more akin to the MLB or NBA playoff models.

Is it too much time off?

When it comes to an office job, probably not, but when it comes to the MLS playoffs, absolutely.

If a team were to win the first two matches of the round one, best-of-three series, they could be waiting upwards of three weeks for their next round match-up. That is a long time to go without playing a competitive match and could punish teams for taking care of business too handily.

Such a pause stands to add stress on the part of coaching and training staffs and will further emphasize player readiness as we inch toward the winter months.

Dare I remind folks of the fate of the 2021 Supporters Shield winners — a dominant New England Revolution team was ousted from the Eastern Conference semis after a similar three-week pause under the old playoff format.

An emphasis on penalty kicks

Matches in the wild card round and best-of-three series will go straight to penalty kicks if tied after the initial 90 minutes. This eliminates the fifteen-minute halves of extra time prior to penalties and ensures that each game will have a winner — no goal aggregates, no tie-breakers, simply each team’s best penalty takers and a keeper going toe-to-toe.

This particular change could allow weaker teams to “sneak in” to round one by way of stalling gameplay for 90 minutes against strong opposition to chance their luck during PKs. These antics would certainly affect the entertainment value of these early playoff rounds.

On the other hand, this change could lead to the type of wide-open, counter-attacking, and hard-tackling games that create rivalries. Couple this with the immense disappointment of losing in penalty kicks. Imagining three consecutive games going to PKs in the best-of-three series is both intriguing and dreadful.

Laying the path

With the addition of expansion team St. Louis City FC this season, the league is now up to 29 teams. Under the old playoff format, 14 teams — exactly half — made the postseason. The new format will see 18 of 29 teams reach the playoffs.

While 18 of 29 teams making the playoffs seems excessive, the inclusion of two additional teams per conference could lay the foundation for years to come, especially with more expansion teams lurking on the horizon and the league’s continuing rapid growth.

The inclusion of additional teams could also make it so that lower-performing teams have a shot at the MLS Cup. Certainly, the best-of-three series could challenge that as, in theory, the better team should advance over three games. Still, if these games are decided on the innate randomness of penalties, it does keep the idea of a Cinderella story alive.

What these changes mean

Given the new product the MLS delivers on Apple TV+, both parties will be financially motivated to show the platform off to new, larger audiences. An extra few games at the most exciting time of the season, while sparking a few rivalries along the way, should provide what each party is looking for.

At its core, it’s giving more markets the opportunity to see their teams play on bigger stages. It’s up to the clubs to adapt and take advantage of what has been laid in front of them with very little time to react. 

Though it is hard to say if these changes will improve the league in its pursuit of perfection, MLS has done a great job of building its league and brand since its inception, so I am choosing to see the positive side of this new playoff format.


  1. Welcome Blake, looking forward to more articles with good insight like this one.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Any change in format that encourages a PK tiebreaker is inherently bad. I know UEFA has removed away goals from it’s tiebreakers which I don’t agree with. What happens when team A wins game 1 5-0 and then the other 2 games are draws and they lose in PK’s. So one team is 1-0-2 and does not advance while the other is 0-1-2 and does? And they don’t even have to play overtime? Watch the Union get screwed by this.

    • The best of thee is first to two wins. If a game is tied at the end of regulation it will immediately go to PK’s to determine a winner.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Yes, but officially losing in PK’s is a draw. So a team who goes 1-0-2 can lose to a team going 0-1-2 if the latter is better at PK’s. Something inherently wrong with that.

  3. What makes the first round worthy of a 3 game series, but the later rounds single elimination? Doesn’t seem logical at all. And 9 teams in per conference seems unnecessary. Chaotic, and a bad look to be deopping that just days before the season started.

    • PapiShmpoo says:

      I’d imagine the round 1 Bo3 would separate the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m not opposed to it. The remaining format of the playoffs would still give us the single elimination we crave. You think with this format the cream rises to the top.

      It doesn’t break my head as much as it does other people. MLB more or less does the same except that with each round the amount of games increases. It makes sense to have round 1 BO3 and the rest single elimination; it’s soccer there’s only so much games you can play. My only qualm is Leagues Cup honestly.

    • SilverRey says:

      This is not meant to make competitive sense, 3 legs were introduced for Apple’s sake. It’s done in the first round to get as many teams as many games as possible. MLS owners aren’t complaining because they get at least one more home games’ gate receipts.
      The format can be fun, but it can also feel drawn out by comparison to last year. It is less of a crap shoot compared to a off one game though, so less upsets.

    • It’s done in the first round in order to give each playoff team, with the exception of possibly one of the play in teams, a home playoff game. Some owners were complaining that they weren’t getting the full benefits of hosting a home playoff game in the previous format. Which, for me, I say do better in the regular season. Invest more in your team beit players, scouting, etc.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    General observation- not a pointed remark at the author or those writing points of view.
    To think this has anything at all to do with soccer is an first order mistake. Every argument therein is rendered mute by a circular reasoning circle jerque hand job.
    These changes have nothing at all to do with soccer. It is about money. It is par.
    Thank you for the thoughtful expose on the topic. I also appreciate the many points of view.

  5. el Pachyderm is correct. It’s all about adding ticket sale, ad sponsorship and gate receipt opportunities. There are no sporting reasons for the farce they’ve made of the playoffs. The best of three is a terrible idea.
    What bugs me more than anything else about MLS is I don’t think any league has less respect for its primary competition. What other league of any kind would interrupt its play for a month and a half to hold a “world cup style” tournament? I’m surprised there hasn’t been more push back from players — perhaps they are getting a piece of the pie (as well they should if they have to go on with this nonsense).

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I think the NBA is close here, and they love the idea of adding games that “matter” around the glut of games that don’t.. For whatever that’s worth.

      • I don’t follow the NBA like I used to, but I’ll take your word for it. I think I once read Garber saying the NBA was sort of a model league for him — where he wanted MLS to be in the near future.

  6. Deez Nuggs says:

    The question for me is not the reason why the format changed— pachy has the right of it there — but whether I personally will like it. Unfortunately, I don’t think I will. In our shield year, if you remember, we had to play New England like 6 times. I got so tired and bored with playing the same team over and over and over. I think it’s likely that 3 games is just too much of the same team. Imagine if we had to play Cincinnati in that series?? Painful. And I don’t think it’s necessarily good to have a wild card play-in game either. I mean with the number of teams in a conference, we’re into the bottom half of the table at that point. Decision Day will be less interesting too knowing it’s easier to get a chance than miss out. Only 5 out of 14 won’t play at least once.

    • You can also argue that Decision Day could be even more meaningful with playoff seeding up for grabs, and more teams fighting for a spot in the playoffs. Having homefield after the first round is critical to Playoff success.

  7. Gruncle Bob says:

    Too many teams – the “play in” 8 v 9 is stupid. Best of 3 with immediate pks for draws is gimmicky, but has the coincidental (I’m sure) effect of ensuring each game fits nicely in a 2 hour time slot.
    The execution and timing of the announcement is sloppy and unprofessional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: