The 2022 MLS Cup playoffs are practically completed — just Sunday’s conference finals stay just before MLS Cup kicks off subsequent Saturday. And it appears that this could be the final hurrah for this 14-group, single-elimination format.
News emerged Wednesday that the league is in discussions to modify its playoff structure to have as a lot of as 30 games with a World Cup-style format, a supply confirmed to ESPN. Nothing has been authorized, but the format will be a subject for discussion at the league’s subsequent board of governors meeting on Nov. 15.
The current playoff format amounts to a total of 13 games. The Athletic, which was very first to report the news, added that a single achievable arrangement would see eight qualifiers from every single conference place into groups of 4, with the leading two teams from every single group advancing to a knockout stage, yielding 31 games. A easier household-and-away format, which would quantity to 25 games, is also becoming regarded as.
Discussions on a new format come in the wake of a ten-year, $two.five billion broadcast rights deal with Apple Television that was signed in June, with the thought of expanding the league’s playoff inventory. So is this a choice driven by broadcasters? Is it a single made to improved engage fans? Is this a suggests of acquiring MLS closer to its objective of becoming a single of the very best leagues in the globe? There are endless inquiries surrounding this subject, so ESPN turned to Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura and Austin Lindberg to speak by means of the reasoning, and lay out their vision for a great postseason.
Lindberg: OK, let’s get into this, beginning with motivation. Why is the league hunting to shake up the postseason?
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Bonagura: From an MLS standpoint, I consider the most significant challenge with the existing structure is how speedily it is more than. There’s not significantly time to create momentum and get fans invested in a way that exists in other American sports. So, in theory, if it is longer, that would resolve for that. Whether it is a World Cup-style format or household-and-household, you happen to be hunting at someplace about 30 games. That’s genuinely exactly where the cash is.
Carlisle: Playoffs draw the most significant audiences. And so to me, it is not surprising that Apple Television and the league are attempting to leverage that and have much more playoff games. But it just appears like the league is caught in this perpetual cycle of irrespective of whether the typical season matters or not. I consider that is the major takeaway: It’s additional devaluation of the typical season.
Does finishing higher in the Supporters’ Shield standings matter? Because the entire purpose the league went to the single-elimination format we see now, and got rid of household-and-away ties, was that it mitigated household-field benefit. There was a slight benefit, I consider, to getting the second leg at household for the reason that if it goes into added-time or penalties you can get the crowd cheering for you, but it was extremely slight. But once again, the league keeps going back and forth on what its preferred playoff format ought to be, and it does not appear to know what it desires.
Lindberg: It does not appear to know what it desires, and it appears as although it is 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 believed it was a genuinely superior thought. There was a novelty aspect, originality, it was anything special and distinct. If the program for subsequent year’s playoffs genuinely is a comparable tournament, then it is tough to escape the conclusion that they’ve taken a superior thought in Leagues Cup and copied it to match the MLS Cup playoffs.
And then there is the idea of adding games to an currently-congested calendar. Every group 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 5 knockout-round games to lift the trophy. You’re adding anyplace involving two and seven games to players’ workloads by means of that competitors alone. Now if the postseason is to go from 13 games to what appears like 31, your MLS Cup winner will have had played a minimum of 3 playoff games in 2022 to anything much more like 12 in 2023. If you happen to be amongst the league’s most ambitious clubs, placing collectively runs in each competitions, you could be hunting at a practically 50% improve in fixtures subsequent season.
Bonagura: The teams that are going have the very best likelihood at generating deep playoff runs are the similar teams that are going be in the mix for the CONCACAF Champions League. I’m not convinced generating a deep CCL run desires to have an adverse impact on how a group performs the rest of the calendar year, but there are adequate examples of that taking place to account for that becoming a factor. Lengthening the playoffs would only appear to compound that challenge. We in all probability will not see a group advance to the finish of just about every knockout competitors — Leagues Cup, U.S. Open Cup, Champions League, playoffs — and I wonder how these prospective calendar alterations effect how teams prioritize every single a single. Add it all up, and how does that evaluate to other leagues in the globe?
Lindberg: You’re appropriate, it is exceedingly unlikely that any a single group adds a entire 24 games to their calendar, but the prospective is there for a 50-game season for some of these teams. And though that is a relatively typical workload for big European clubs, there is a distinction involving undertaking that when you happen to be primarily based in the U.K., mainly taking brief-hop flights or trains or buses, and undertaking that in the U.S., exactly where virtually just about every road trip is going to necessitate a two- or 3-hour flight. As a lot of will attest, travel in MLS requires its toll on players’ recovery.
Carlisle: The other factor also is, you can evaluate it to Europe, but the climate alone is going to preclude something other than a late-February begin to begin the season, and you happen to be currently going into December for MLS Cup. And there have been instances when the climate has wreaked havoc on that match. Not just about every group has an indoor venue like Atlanta does. There often are challenges in terms of the MLS schedule, but I consider by expanding the playoffs and adding Leagues Cup it is going to make it super complex, and it is genuinely going to demand a lot of the players.
Bonagura: I consider I would really feel differently about working with a World Cup-style playoff format, if alternatively of eight teams in every single conference, it was 4 teams in every single conference. If you reduce it down to 4, at least it adds significance to the typical season. It would nevertheless be a bizarre way to finish a season, but it would not really feel as significantly like a totally distinct competitors.
Carlisle: I consider the other factor to hold in thoughts is that owners adore getting a household playoff game. The perspectives are distinct.
Bonagura: Then there is a query of irrespective of whether this is a choice produced for the owners or for the fans. Opinions are going to differ primarily based on viewpoint. As a fan, what entertains me the most? That’s all I would genuinely care about. A fan is not genuinely incentivized to care if an owner is generating much more cash, they just want to be entertained. Now, if they are generating the case that altering the postseason format will permit them to produce much more income and, in turn, invest in improved players and raise the caliber of the league, OK, perhaps I’m a tiny bit much more intrigued by that. But to acquire into that thought would have to have a lot of convincing.
Lindberg: I realize why owners would adore to get much more household playoff games. There’s cash to be produced. It engages the fans, yes, but it is a sold-out stadium and everyone’s purchasing merch and they are purchasing beers and burritos. I get it. But the most apparent motivation for this appears to be economic, and the people today who will genuinely spend for it are the players. There could be a lot of further games subsequent year, perhaps as tiny as a five% improve, potentially drastically much more. And however a single of the most essential numbers for me is that the salary cap is going up 9% involving 2022 and 2023. The balance is not there. That figure does not reflect the development that this league desires, 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 much more and integrating these guys much more into the group if fixture congestion is a concern.
Lindberg: I consider that goes back to the devaluation of the typical season. If we’re speaking about a situation in which teams are rotating the squad, each to keep fitness but also to enable integrate some of these younger players ahead of a post-season exactly where you consider these games are going to be much more essential, what does it say about your typical season?
Bonagura: That it does not imply significantly?
Carlisle: How confusing could this be to fans? I imply, people today get the World Cup, but …
Bonagura: I wonder if that is element of the intent. The World Cup is this super prosperous competitors, and that is why they borrowed the format with the Leagues Cup. MLS should really feel like fans liked it with the MLS is Back tournament, there was a superior response to working with that format in Leagues Cup, so why would not they like it in the playoffs? I consider exactly where it gets a tiny hokey is the thought of working with it as playoff method. It’s not the similar as working with it as a standalone tournament. It’s not genuinely been historically utilised as an finish-of-the-year tournament, it is often been its personal factor. People could have a challenging time understanding that.
Lindberg: And this brings us back to the conversation of the worth of your typical season. What is a group-stage game in the playoffs? What worth does that carry vs. the typical season? In a standalone tournament like the World Cup, the group stage is your typical season, it sets the field for the knockout portion of the tournament, which is ostensibly what the playoffs have often been.
Carlisle: What I also do not like about the group stage is that it type of dilutes the drama. Even in a two-legged tie, it is suspenseful, there is an all-or-absolutely nothing really feel to it, for the reason that if you screw up the very first leg, you happen to be placing oneself in a terrible hole for the second. And it is against the similar opponent. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Lindberg: Kyle, you talked about entertainment. The entire point of sports is to entertain fans. Is that what is driving this choice? Is an expanded playoffs becoming explored for the advantage of the fans or is this a choice that is motivated by finances?
Bonagura: I consider becoming guided by finances is defendable, to say, “We’re a business enterprise attempting to make much more cash.” Like, who is going to inform a business enterprise that they ought to operate in a way that tends to make significantly less cash? But I consider it would be less complicated to acquire in as a fan of the league if you knew this somehow tends to make the league improved.
We’ve heard for decades now that MLS desires to continue to develop and sooner or later turn into a single of the improved leagues in the globe, and if this is a income driver that final results in them becoming in a position to drastically improve how significantly they can compensate players and it subsequently has a true impact on the high quality of the league, then that is a choice that I can get behind. I just am not convinced — and admittedly we nevertheless do not know if a modify is genuinely taking place or what that could genuinely appear like — that this will lead to that. If you happen to be rolling out an initiative that does not increase the league extended term, then it does not make significantly sense.
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Carlisle: Well, is not the broadcast rights deal the mechanism to get from point A to point B, and this is just a case of Apple attempting to maximize their return? I was speaking about the owners wanting a household playoff game, and you can argue how significantly that genuinely impacts their bottom line, but for a broadcaster to have 17 or 18 much more playoff games is merely much more content material for them. Without them coming out and saying it, I consider that is type of the true driver right here, which is not to say that there are not ancillary positive aspects in terms of teams acquiring much more playoff income.
What ought to the MLS playoff format appear like?
Take a web page out of Liga MX’s book
For me, the excellent playoff format includes getting every single matchup except the MLS Cup final contested more than two legs, and then taking a web page out of Liga MX’s playbook. If the teams are tied on targets immediately after two legs, then the larger-seeded group advances. This appears to resolve the twin troubles of, a single, rising the inventory of playoff matches and, two, guaranteeing just about every group that tends to make the playoffs has at least a single household playoff game.
If you have eight teams in every single conference generating the playoffs, that would be a total of 29 postseason games. That’s 16 much more than are in the existing format, which would please the new broadcast rights holders. Each group getting at least a single household playoff game would please the owners. At the similar time, there is worth to finishing larger in the standings, so that the larger-seeded group enters the round with a constructed-in benefit. That way the typical season is not totally devalued. There would not be any hokey away-targets rule either that just appears to lessen homefield benefit. MLS would also prevent penalty shootouts that are, though dramatic, a completely unsatisfying way to make a decision who advances.
Frankly, provided how MLS and Liga MX are joined at the hip on practically almost everything else these days, I’m shocked it this method hasn’t been implemented just before. And if MLS is this keen on lengthening the postseason, this is the very best way to do it. — Carlisle
Mix Liga MX and NBA
From a sporting standpoint, the objective ought to be to implement a format that most efficiently determines who the very best group is. That’s the entire point. Except, in soccer, that is less complicated mentioned than performed. If there was an apparent way to implement a universally agreed-upon playoff method in soccer, we would not nevertheless be discussing how to do it two-plus decades immediately after the birth of MLS. With that understanding, I consider any playoff method ought to exist in a way not to devalue the typical season. How teams play more than the 34-game season is the very best indicator of strength, so the Supporters’ Shield ought to be viewed below that lens. Of course, the league’s necessity for an unbalanced schedule due to the quantity of teams and geographic footprint prevents the Shield from mattering the similar way it does in Europe exactly where scheduling is equitable.
I agree with Jeff that two-legged, knockout matchups exactly where the improved-seeded group advances when the score is tied is superior. In soccer, for a group to play a complete season and then see it finish from a single poor game, exactly where uncommon situations typically play a part, is harsh. It’s tougher to really feel shortchanged if a group is eliminated more than 180 minutes.
Where we would differ is that I would rather see the field chopped down to 4 from every single conference (or perhaps 5 with a single play-in game on every single side). I like the dynamic that exists when it is an accomplishment to make the playoffs, rather than an expectation for just about every decent group. Maybe this format does not line the owners’ pockets in the similar way an expanded field would, but it is not my cash, so I’m not positive why I would care. — Bonagura
Lean into a play-in tournament
MLS has extended been a league in which qualifying for the postseason is a comparatively low bar to clear. This year, the league’s 27th season in existence, is the very first time much more than 50% of teams will not make the playoffs. And subsequent year, when the field seemingly will expand to 16 teams, once again we will see much more than half of the 29 clubs represented in postseason play.
So, if there is an emphasis on generating the MLS Cup playoffs anything that just about every group can aspire to, why not open it up to even much 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-group playoff field, your very first eight seeds in every single conference automatically qualify, but the NBA has introduced some further drama.
Basketball’s play-in sees the No. 7 and No. eight seeds in every single conference play for the appropriate to be the No. 7 seed in the playoffs appropriate. Meanwhile, the No. 9 and No. ten seeds have a playoff of their personal, with the winner earning a likelihood to take on the loser of No. 7-vs.-No. eight playoff to safe every single conference’s final playoff location.
Would such a situation resolve the threat of a devalued typical season? It does not. But if you adapted this formula for MLS, generating your play-ins household-and-away ties, you’d add 12 fixtures to your playoff inventory. If you produced the rest of the tournament two legs, you’d all of a sudden obtain oneself with a glut of postseason programming. — Lindberg