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Explaining the new MLS Playoff format is a headache
A best of three series sandwiched between some single elimination rounds is just weird.
Most of my friends or even casual acquaintances know I follow Major League Soccer, and FC Dallas for that matter, pretty closely. I was 11 years old when MLS launched in 1996, and I have been covering it in a blog format since 2007.
So when friends ask me how things are going this time of the year with FC Dallas, they usually expect to hear my thoughts or opinions on how well or poorly the team has done in the season.
Almost every follow-up from their question ends up being about the playoffs in MLS. The last few seasons have been easy to point out that it is all one-and-done in the playoffs, similar to how the NFL or March Madness does their playoffs.
This year’s change in format has already presented itself as a challenge to talk through, even with people who understand MLS. To the casual observer, it is a complete pain in the ass.
For those looking for a bit of a refresher before this weekend and, hopefully, before FC Dallas finds themselves dealing with the playoffs, here is what the new format is like in MLS for 2023:
Nine teams qualify from each conference (so over half of the league since there are 29 teams).
The 8th and 9th place teams will square off in a Wild Card game that will determine who moves.
The top team in each conference receives a bye in the first round and will play the winner of the 8 vs 9 matchup.
The ‘Round One’ is a best-of-three series.
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
No extra time will be played if a match is tied at the end of regulation. Teams will participate in kicks from the penalty spot to determine the winner. (Just like we saw in the Leagues Cup.)
The first team to win two matches will advance.
The conference semifinals, conference finals and MLS Cup are all single elimination.
Single-game elimination matches are hosted by the higher seed.
Unlike Round One, if any of those games in the conference semifinal, final or MLS Cup are 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.
Not complicated at all, folks.
This also doesn’t take into account the break between Round One and the conference semifinals for the FIFA break in November. A potential momentum killer for MLS.
We’re going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about how this format isn’t great for new fans or casual fans who want to get in on the action when it is more intense. I know I got used to the single elimination format that had been used over the last few seasons.
The best I’ve been able to quickly explain away with friends is that this new format is similar to the old one but with one giant twist up front in Round One. Some folks have reacted that Round One sounds intriguing, while others were quick to point out that they just hope FC Dallas can survive and make it to the single elimination rounds.
Yeah, we’ll certainly see about that.
My hope is that this is a one-and-done format attempt by MLS. Hopefully, the format will revert back to just a single elimination next year. I think I could even live with nine or ten teams per conference as a compromise, too.
What do you all think of this new format for 2023? How are you explaining Round One to your friends who aren’t diehard fans of MLS or FC Dallas?