The Football League is considering a major change to the 2023 play-off format, club and league sources have revealed. The Athletic On Tuesday. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.
The league, which will grow to 29 teams next season with the arrival of expansion club St.Louis City SC, could increase the total number of playoff games from the current 13 to about 30 next year, sources said. The idea of moving to a 30-game postseason was outlined in a document distributed and received by MLS clubs over the summer. The Athletic On Tuesday.
Sources said the league is considering expanding its playoff format in part so it can increase its overall inventory of postseason games in the first year of a new media rights deal with Apple. The league and Apple announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast deal in June that will see the tech giant show every MLS regular season and playoff match on the Apple TV streaming service starting in 2023.
The current MLS playoff format includes seven teams from each conference. All playoff matches are eliminated once, giving the league a total of 13 postseason matches, including the MLS Cup.
This format would have to change to accommodate the 30-game postseason. Sources say one possible outcome could be a move to a World Cup-style play-off tournament. It was not clear from the sources exactly what this potential tournament would look like, but it was speculated that one format could be as follows:
- The top eight teams from each conference qualify for the postseason
- These teams are divided into four groups of four teams each
- Groups are divided by conference; Teams from the Western Conference would be grouped with other teams from the Western Conference, and teams from the Eastern Conference would only be grouped with other teams from the Eastern Conference.
- As in the World Cup, each team plays three group stage matches, one against the other three teams in the group.
- The top two seeds in each group play two group games; The bottom two seeds will play a group game
- The top two teams from each group advance to the eight-team, one-off final.
- Like the group stage, the playoff stage is divided into conferences
- The top seeds will host the finals, with the Western Conference champion going up against the Eastern Conference champion in the MLS Cup.
The source, who noted this potential new format, also noted that MLS could set up such a tournament to play multiple group matches each night over the course of about two weeks. The current MLS playoff format makes it difficult for the league to create narratives; in the blink of an eye, the entire postseason is over. Expanding the playoffs and holding night games a couple of weeks in a row would theoretically allow the league to gain prime position. Conversely, the move to a playoff format that would be unique to both soccer and the North American sports landscape could confuse casual fans or newcomers to the league.
Again, the changes are not final. A committee of senior MLS owners and officials discussed the World Cup format this summer, sources said, and the proposed change was welcomed. Any such change must be approved by the full MLS board of governors, which will meet in Brooklyn in mid-November.
The league could also consider other formats that would bring it closer to its goal of 30 postseason games — revising the current format to a two-legged system with one championship game would result in a 25-game postseason schedule.
The league’s playoff format has changed several times in its 27-year history. In its early years, eight of the league’s 10 teams qualified for the postseason, and the league used a best-of-three format for the conference semifinals and finals. They changed this system in 2000, dividing the league into three divisions, and the top eight teams in the league made the playoffs. The league stuck to this format for a while, but eventually equalized the number of qualifying teams from each conference, moved to two-legged matches, and eliminated the best-of-three system. In 2019, the league introduced its current, simplified, single-elimination format.
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