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What to know about new MLS Cup playoffs format

Single-elimination is the order of the day.

2014 MLS Cup - New England Revolution v Los Angeles Galaxy

The crowded MLS Cup Playoffs are changing, and the league has opted for a single-elimination format for the tournament.

It’s a move that puts more importance on the regular season, with the higher seed hosting all games in which they’re involved. It’s very much strengthening the home-field advantage teams have.

Here’s everything you need to know.

Number of teams qualifying: 14 (from 12)

The MLS release says this is about expansion more than anything, but they also reference other pro sports leagues.

With the addition of new teams, MLS will have a similar percentage of playoff-qualifying teams as the other major men’s North American professional sports leagues.

Schedule: Oct. 19–Nov. 10

This means that the age of completely and utterly frozen MLS Cup matches is going to decrease — so no more Dec. 7 matches in Kansas City, for example.

It also means that there’s an extra period of time between the end of the regular season and the playoffs starting — that’s in part because of a FIFA window.

Following the regular season, playoff teams will have the October FIFA break to prepare for the playoffs, providing clubs with time to promote the postseason and sell tickets.

It also plays into the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which was bought and paid for to play in Qatar, where a summer tournament simply won’t work.

The new postseason format timing will conclude prior to World Cup 2022, which begins in Qatar on Nov. 21.

Single elimination

With seven teams making the tournament from each conference, the top seed will have a bye in the first round. This is in contrast to the top two seeds having a bye currently. Here’s an MLS-provided graphic:

Single-elimination means that any given team can play up to four matches, with the top seed topping out at three matches.


Does this make the playoffs less of a spectacle? If it does, I’m for it — especially as it prioritizes the regular season. Now, that doesn’t necessarily favor Real Salt Lake — the old system did a bit more, I think — and it does favor teams who can spend significant money to perform well over the course of the regular season.