MLS makes wholesale changes to playoff structure

In the most sweeping changes to its playoff system since after the 2002 season when it abandoned a best-of-three series with a point system that extended series as long as three games, MLS will end its regular season three weeks earlier and shorten its playoffs to four weeks, beginning in 2019.

Among the key elements of the new MLS playoffs ...

-- A single-elimination format throughout the postseason (no more two-leg series);
-- An expansion of the field from the top six to top seven teams in each conference;
-- Only the top seeds in each conference will get a first-round bye; and
-- A four-week postseason between the October and November FIFA windows.

Positives. The major impetus for the change in formats is the excessive length of the current postseason, which extended over more than five weeks and overlapped with the November FIFA window. In 2018, the first 12 games were played over 12 days; the last five games took 27 days to finish.

MLS is also touting the new format as boosting the value of success in the regular season. Higher seeds will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The new schedule will also increase the chances of the playoffs finishing in better weather.

In a two-leg format, the first legs generally were low-scoring affairs. In 2018, the six first legs produced only 10 goals, while the six second legs featured 24 goals -- a difference of 1.7 goals per game vs. 4.0 goals per game.

The October FIFA break will give teams two weeks between the final regular-season game and the first round of the conference playoffs to recover and prepare for the postseason.

The one exception to that will be in 2022 when FIFA will hold the World Cup in the late fall. The new schedule sets up MLS to finish before Qatar 2022 is scheduled to kick off on Nov. 21, but there will be no October FIFA window. The only fall window will take place Sept. 19-27.

Negatives. The regular season in 2019 will be shortened by three weeks. Each team will have to shift two games (more if they played in the October FIFA window) to midweek dates earlier in the season.

As it is, the offseason (no preseason training) for teams that don't make the playoffs is 14 weeks -- that would extend three more weeks. MLS Cup teams generally get six weeks off -- that would extend four more weeks. The offseason in most major leagues is about six weeks.

MLS will likely start the regular season earlier, beginning in 2020. It will have to consider some sort of postseason competition for the fall or a fall competition for young players, like MLB teams do in the Arizona fall league.

Returning after the October FIFA break won't be without its perils. Players won't return from international duty until the Wednesday or Thursday before the weekend openers. The first-round bye will force the conference top seeds to go three weeks between matches.

8 comments about "MLS makes wholesale changes to playoff structure".
  1. James Madison, December 17, 2018 at 8:16 p.m.

    Interesting changes, but in the wrong direction. The number oif playoff teams should not have been increased, and the quarter-finals and semi-finals should have been made mid-week/weekend home and home with only the finals a winner-take-all after a week's rest.

  2. R2 Dad, December 17, 2018 at 10:48 p.m.

    When the entire season just becomes a seeding event for the post season, people lose interest in the regular season. I agree with James--fewer teams is better. And yet the Earthquakes will STILL not make it to the postseason---again.

  3. Linda Gohl replied, December 19, 2018 at 8:17 p.m.

    Less teams for the playoffs would have been better, but even if the EarthQuakes do make it, I (a season ticket buyer) will still won't spend any more because I doubt the EQ will play at home :-D
    I really wish they would elevate the supporters shield to be the MLS cup and have a separate competion of single elemination that includes all the teams for the side show. Similar to what they do in Germany.

  4. humble 1, December 18, 2018 at 9:11 a.m.

    asuming they remove away goals in the single game scenario ecen though it is an ‘at’ fixture.

  5. beautiful game, December 18, 2018 at 10:58 a.m.

    The KO system is long overdue. But to have more teams in the play-offs diminishes the regular season insentive. 

  6. Randy Vogt, December 18, 2018 at 12:38 p.m.

    It makes sense to make each series one game to reward the better team during the regular season. However, with one less game and no away-goals rule, more series will be decded by the lottery of the shootout, what a ref would call "kicks from the mark." Which is obviously not a positive.

  7. Randy Vogt replied, December 18, 2018 at 12:41 p.m.

    Oops, missed putting an "i" to make the word "decided" above. Doubt anybody thought the word was "decoded" instead. :)

  8. John Soares, December 18, 2018 at 1:38 p.m.

    This is terrible for fans.
    If a lower ranking team goes all the way and wins the MLS Cup, it has happened before.
    The fans will never see a single home game.
    For those that are always complaining that the MLS needs to imitate Europe.
    How is this an improvement?

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