The New MLS Playoff Format is a Mistake.

This is something different from our normal content, I’m going to be essentially ranting about my personal grievances with the new MLS playoff format. I’m fully aware that I am going to come across as some sort of European elitist/gatekeeper (I am British), but I only mention this to help contextualise what I’m about to say.


I want to like and follow the MLS. I’ve lived in Canada now for four years and as such have been following the league more than I ever did back in the UK. It has a lot going for it. Attendances and quality look to be improving every year, there is plenty of future expansion candidates and the league has genuinely never been in a better place. Its playoff format in 2022 seemed like the best-case scenario. Seven teams from each conference reach the playoffs, with the top team getting a bye, single elimination ties, and the higher seed getting home advantage. Seven teams might be a lot, but with single elimination with the lower seeds playing away – league performance still felt relevant, especially with the top-seeded team getting a bye. It also meant that as of 2022, half the league got into the playoffs, not ideal but if the league was to expand to thirty-two teams (which seems an inevitability) it would be just over forty percent of the league, not too far off the percentage for the NFL, and harder to get into statistically than the NHL playoffs, and the NBA.

The Philadelphia Union celebrate the 2022 MLS Eastern Conference championship. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty)

But then the MLS just had to meddle with its playoff format…again. The MLS has changed its playoff format before, multiple times. And this latest format seems to please no one. Firstly, the playoffs have been expanded to nine teams per conference, eighteen in total in a league of twenty-nine, meaning that a whopping sixty-two percent of the league makes the playoffs.

Last year in the east, Charlotte (the ninth placed team) finished twenty-five points behind first place Philadelphia Union. Whilst out West, ninth placed Vancouver finished twenty-four points behind LAFC. It undermines the seasons of the top teams if quite frankly, a team who finishes twenty-five points behind the team who in literally any other league wouldn’t be crowned champions…could feasibly be crowned champions ahead of them. I’d go as far to say it makes a mockery of the regular season.

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As much as I’d rather not have playoffs in favour of a more traditional league format, I understand why it exists. The playoff format is too ingrained in North American sports culture, it’s as traditional in North America as say a 3pm Saturday kickoff in England. But playoffs need to really feel like a reward, when it’s easier to get into the playoffs than to not make the playoffs, you have a problem.


A best-of-three series a well feels gimmicky. It’s not something soccer fans want, my best guess is it’s to try and copy the best of seven model used in other sports as much as possible. It’s being used as a stick by people in Europe and South America to make fun of the MLS, it’s just completely against the conventional soccer format. All it really serves to do is get more games on TV, it will not make the playoffs better. Don’t believe me, then you only have to look back at the beginning of the MLS, where they did use the best of three and got rid of it. If it was so good, then why get rid of it in the first place? Why don’t we bring back the hockey-style penalty shootouts too…

Jessie Marsch of Chigago Fire prepares to take a running-penalty kick from thirty five yards out (

Another big factor is that it’s even more games for teams to play. This season MLS teams will have to play in the US Open/Canadian Championship, The Leagues Cup, the regular season and an expanded playoff. That’s not even including the extra games that CONCACAF Champions League teams will play. There is a danger of player burnout, and games either having a significantly higher risk of injury or the quality of soccer not being as high as it could be. Players in Europe have been speaking up about this problem in the last few months, and it appears as if the MLS has ignored the perils.


The MLS wants to be taken seriously, there are plenty of fans who already proclaim that the MLS is on par with European leagues in the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Belgium, etc. But in the eyes of the global soccer populace, it’ll never be taken seriously with a format like this. The backlash from domestic fans is also notable, most MLS fans hate this new format, there was nothing about the old format that was so flawed that it required a dramatic fix. Perhaps the Apple deal came with a requirement for more games? That’s the most logical explanation I can think of. But the league has to change this as soon as possible, it simply has to.

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