The 2022 MLS Cup playoffs are nearly finished -- just Sunday's conference finals remain before MLS Cup kicks off next Saturday. And it seems that this could be the last hurrah for this 14-team, single-elimination format.
News emerged Wednesday that the league is in discussions to modify its playoff structure to have as many as 30 games with a World Cup-style format, a source confirmed to ESPN. Nothing has been approved, but the format will be a topic for discussion at the league's next board of governors meeting on Nov. 15.
The existing playoff format amounts to a total of 13 games. The Athletic, which was first to report the news, added that one possible arrangement would see eight qualifiers from each conference put into groups of four, with the top two teams from each group advancing to a knockout stage, yielding 31 games. A simpler home-and-away format, which would amount to 25 games, is also being considered.
Discussions on a new format come in the wake of a 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast rights deal with Apple TV that was signed in June, with the idea of expanding the league's playoff inventory. So is this a decision driven by broadcasters? Is it one designed to better engage fans? Is this a means of getting MLS closer to its goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world? There are endless questions surrounding this topic, so ESPN turned to Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura and Austin Lindberg to talk through the reasoning, and lay out their vision for a perfect postseason.
Lindberg: OK, let's get into this, starting with motivation. Why is the league looking to shake up the postseason?
Bonagura: From an MLS standpoint, I think the biggest issue with the current structure is how quickly it's over. There's not much time to build momentum and get fans invested in a way that exists in other American sports. So, in theory, if it's longer, that would solve for that. Whether it's a World Cup-style format or home-and-home, you're looking at somewhere around 30 games. That's really where the money is.
Carlisle: Playoffs draw the biggest audiences. And so to me, it's not surprising that Apple TV and the league are trying to leverage that and have more playoff games. But it just seems like the league is caught in this perpetual cycle of whether the regular season matters or not. I think that's the main takeaway: It's further devaluation of the regular season.
Does finishing high in the Supporters' Shield standings matter? Because the whole reason the league went to the single-elimination format we see today, and got rid of home-and-away ties, was that it mitigated home-field advantage. There was a slight advantage, I think, to having the second leg at home because if it goes into extra-time or penalties you can get the crowd cheering for you, but it was very slight. But again, the league keeps going back and forth on what its preferred playoff format should be, and it doesn't seem to know what it wants.
Lindberg: It doesn't seem to know what it wants, and it seems as though it's low on imagination and inspiration. When MLS and Liga MX announced plans for the 2023 Leagues Cup, featuring a World Cup-style tournament format, I thought it was a really good idea. There was a novelty factor, originality, it was something unique and different. If the plan for next year's playoffs really is a similar tournament, then it's hard to escape the conclusion that they've taken a good idea in Leagues Cup and copied it to fit the MLS Cup playoffs.
And then there's the concept of adding games to an already-congested calendar. Every team bar this year's MLS Cup winner is now going to play at least two games at Leagues Cup in 2023 and the winner of the tournament will have played five knockout-round games to lift the trophy. You're adding anywhere between two and seven games to players' workloads through that competition alone. Now if the postseason is to go from 13 games to what looks like 31, your MLS Cup winner will have had played a minimum of three playoff games in 2022 to something more like 12 in 2023. If you're among the league's most ambitious clubs, putting together runs in both competitions, you could be looking at a nearly 50% increase in fixtures next season.
Bonagura: The teams that are going have the best chance at making deep playoff runs are the same teams that are going be in the mix for the CONCACAF Champions League. I'm not convinced making a deep CCL run needs to have an adverse effect on how a team performs the rest of the calendar year, but there are enough examples of that happening to account for that being a thing. Lengthening the playoffs would only seem to compound that issue. We probably won't see a team advance to the end of every knockout competition -- Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Champions League, playoffs -- and I wonder how these potential calendar changes impact how teams prioritize each one. Add it all up, and how does that compare to other leagues in the world?
Lindberg: You're right, it's exceedingly unlikely that any one team adds a whole 24 games to their calendar, but the potential is there for a 50-game season for some of these teams. And while that's a fairly normal workload for major European clubs, there's a difference between doing that when you're based in the U.K., primarily taking short-hop flights or trains or buses, and doing that in the U.S., where practically every road trip is going to necessitate a two- or three-hour flight. As many will attest, travel in MLS takes its toll on players' recovery.
Carlisle: The other thing too is, you can compare it to Europe, but the weather alone is going to preclude anything other than a late-February start to start the season, and you're already going into December for MLS Cup. And there have been times when the weather has wreaked havoc on that match. Not every team has an indoor venue like Atlanta does. There always are challenges in terms of the MLS schedule, but I think by expanding the playoffs and adding Leagues Cup it's going to make it super complicated, and it's really going to demand a lot of the players.
Bonagura: I think I would feel differently about using a World Cup-style playoff format, if instead of eight teams in each conference, it was four teams in each conference. If you cut it down to four, at least it adds importance to the regular season. It would still be a bizarre way to end a season, but it wouldn't feel as much like a completely different competition.
Carlisle: I think the other thing to keep in mind is that owners love having a home playoff game. The perspectives are different.
Bonagura: Then there's a question of whether this is a decision made for the owners or for the fans. Opinions are going to vary based on perspective. As a fan, what entertains me the most? That's all I would really care about. A fan isn't really incentivized to care if an owner is making more money, they just want to be entertained. Now, if they're making the case that changing the postseason format will allow them to generate more revenue and, in turn, invest in better players and raise the caliber of the league, OK, maybe I'm a little bit more intrigued by that. But to buy into that idea would need a lot of convincing.
Lindberg: I understand why owners would love to get more home playoff games. There's money to be made. It engages the fans, yes, but it's a sold-out stadium and everyone's buying merch and they're buying beers and burritos. I get it. But the most obvious motivation for this seems to be financial, and the people who will really pay for it are the players. There could be a lot of additional games next year, maybe as little as a 5% increase, potentially significantly more. And yet one of the most important numbers for me is that the salary cap is going up 9% between 2022 and 2023. The balance isn't there. That figure doesn't reflect the growth that this league needs, and has been boasting for some time now, nor the added workload placed on players.
Bonagura: I wonder if it does lead to some teams playing their younger players more and integrating those guys more into the team if fixture congestion is a concern.
Lindberg: I think that goes back to the devaluation of the regular season. If we're talking about a scenario in which teams are rotating the squad, both to maintain fitness but also to help integrate some of these younger players ahead of a post-season where you think those games are going to be more important, what does it say about your regular season?
Bonagura: That it doesn't mean much?
Carlisle: How confusing might this be to fans? I mean, people get the World Cup, but ...
Bonagura: I wonder if that's part of the intent. The World Cup is this super successful competition, and that's why they borrowed the format with the Leagues Cup. MLS must feel like fans liked it with the MLS is Back tournament, there was a good response to using that format in Leagues Cup, so why wouldn't they like it in the playoffs? I think where it gets a little hokey is the idea of using it as playoff system. It's not the same as using it as a standalone tournament. It's not really been historically used as an end-of-the-year tournament, it's always been its own thing. People could have a tough time understanding that.
Lindberg: And this brings us back to the conversation of the value of your regular season. What is a group-stage game in the playoffs? What value does that carry vs. the regular season? In a standalone tournament like the World Cup, the group stage is your regular season, it sets the field for the knockout portion of the tournament, which is ostensibly what the playoffs have always been.
Carlisle: What I also don't like about the group stage is that it kind of dilutes the drama. Even in a two-legged tie, it's suspenseful, there's an all-or-nothing feel to it, because if you screw up the first leg, you're putting yourself in a terrible hole for the second. And it's against the same opponent. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Lindberg: Kyle, you talked about entertainment. The whole point of sports is to entertain fans. Is that what's driving this decision? Is an expanded playoffs being explored for the benefit of the fans or is this a decision that's motivated by finances?
Bonagura: I think being guided by finances is defendable, to say, "We're a business trying to make more money." Like, who is going to tell a business that they should operate in a way that makes less money? But I think it would be easier to buy in as a fan of the league if you knew this somehow makes the league better.
We've heard for decades now that MLS wants to continue to grow and eventually become one of the better leagues in the world, and if this is a revenue driver that results in them being able to significantly increase how much they can compensate players and it subsequently has a real effect on the quality of the league, then that's a decision that I can get behind. I just am not convinced -- and admittedly we still don't know if a change is really happening or what that could really look like -- that this will lead to that. If you're rolling out an initiative that doesn't improve the league long term, then it doesn't make much sense.
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Carlisle: Well, isn't the broadcast rights deal the mechanism to get from point A to point B, and this is just a case of Apple trying to maximize their return? I was talking about the owners wanting a home playoff game, and you can argue how much that really impacts their bottom line, but for a broadcaster to have 17 or 18 more playoff games is simply more content for them. Without them coming out and saying it, I think that's kind of the real driver here, which is not to say that there aren't ancillary benefits in terms of teams getting more playoff revenue.
What should the MLS playoff format look like?
Take a page out of Liga MX's book
For me, the ideal playoff format involves having each matchup except the MLS Cup final contested over two legs, and then taking a page out of Liga MX's playbook. If the teams are tied on goals after two legs, then the higher-seeded team advances. This seems to solve the twin problems of, one, increasing the inventory of playoff matches and, two, guaranteeing every team that makes the playoffs has at least one home playoff game.
If you have eight teams in each conference making the playoffs, that would be a total of 29 postseason games. That's 16 more than are in the current format, which would please the new broadcast rights holders. Each team having at least one home playoff game would please the owners. At the same time, there is value to finishing higher in the standings, so that the higher-seeded team enters the round with a built-in advantage. That way the regular season isn't completely devalued. There wouldn't be any hokey away-goals rule either that just seems to lessen homefield advantage. MLS would also avoid penalty shootouts that are, while dramatic, a thoroughly unsatisfying way to decide who advances.
Frankly, given how MLS and Liga MX are joined at the hip on almost everything else these days, I'm surprised it this system hasn't been implemented before. And if MLS is this keen on lengthening the postseason, this is the best way to do it. -- Carlisle
Mix Liga MX and NBA
From a sporting standpoint, the goal should be to implement a format that most effectively determines who the best team is. That's the whole point. Except, in soccer, that's easier said than done. If there was an obvious way to implement a universally agreed-upon playoff system in soccer, we wouldn't still be discussing how to do it two-plus decades after the birth of MLS. With that understanding, I think any playoff system should exist in a way not to devalue the regular season. How teams play over the 34-game season is the best indicator of strength, so the Supporters' Shield should be viewed under that lens. Of course, the league's necessity for an unbalanced schedule due to the number of teams and geographic footprint prevents the Shield from mattering the same way it does in Europe where scheduling is equitable.
I agree with Jeff that two-legged, knockout matchups where the better-seeded team advances when the score is tied is good. In soccer, for a team to play a full season and then see it end from one bad game, where unusual circumstances often play a role, is harsh. It's harder to feel shortchanged if a team is eliminated over 180 minutes.
Where we would differ is that I would rather see the field chopped down to four from each conference (or maybe five with one play-in game on each side). I like the dynamic that exists when it's an accomplishment to make the playoffs, rather than an expectation for every decent team. Maybe this format doesn't line the owners' pockets in the same way an expanded field would, but it's not my money, so I'm not sure why I would care. -- Bonagura
Lean into a play-in tournament
MLS has long been a league in which qualifying for the postseason is a relatively low bar to clear. This year, the league's 27th season in existence, is the first time more than 50% of teams won't make the playoffs. And next year, when the field seemingly will expand to 16 teams, again we will see more than half of the 29 clubs represented in postseason play.
So, if there is an emphasis on making the MLS Cup playoffs something that every team can aspire to, why not open it up to even more of them? The NBA introduced a miniaturized play-in tournament in the 2020 playoff bubble in Orlando, but the format became a fixture for the 2020-21 season. Typically in a 16-team playoff field, your first eight seeds in each conference automatically qualify, but the NBA has introduced some additional drama.
Basketball's play-in sees the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds in each conference play for the right to be the No. 7 seed in the playoffs proper. Meanwhile, the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds have a playoff of their own, with the winner earning a chance to take on the loser of No. 7-vs.-No. 8 playoff to secure each conference's final playoff place.
Would such a scenario solve the threat of a devalued regular season? It doesn't. But if you adapted this formula for MLS, making your play-ins home-and-away ties, you'd add 12 fixtures to your playoff inventory. If you made the rest of the tournament two legs, you'd suddenly find yourself with a glut of postseason programming. -- Lindberg