MLS's long-rumored changes to the playoff format and schedule are now official.
The league revealed its new plans on Monday, eliminating two-legged series from the postseason and further incentivizing the higher seeds in each conference in an effort to add more meaning to the regular season. Also, instead of having MLS Cup staged in December, the season will end considerably earlier, with mid-November the new timing for the final, ahead of the FIFA international window that has disrupted the momentum of the playoffs in years past.
MLS commissioner Don Garber had hinted at the move in his pre-MLS Cup remarks.
“There has been lots of talk about changes to the playoff format,” Garber said on the eve of the title game. “We’ve been looking hard at it. We’ll be talking to our board about it next week. My guess is we’ll probably end up with something that’s a little bit different than we have now … The idea here is to continually work on making the regular season become more and more important so winning in March is as important as winning in September or October. And our playoff format, the one we’re evaluating, is really going to place a very strong emphasis on the regular season.”
That certainly appears to be the case. Under the new plan, seven teams–up one from six–in each of the two conferences (which will each have 12 teams in 2019) will make the playoffs, with the respective No. 1 seeds earning first-round byes. The remaining six-teams in each conference will play one-game elimination matches, with the higher seed hosting.
The three survivors in the east and west will join the top seeds in the conference semifinals, which also will be one-off matches hosted by the higher seeds. The same goes for the conference finals and MLS Cup. The away-goal tiebreaker is now a thing of the past in MLS.
In order to fit the playoffs into the new, shorter, time window, the league figures to add more midweek matches throughout the regular season, which remains at 34 games. In 2019, the regular season will begin on March 2 and end Oct. 6, and MLS Cup will be held Nov. 10. MLS, in its statement, made a point to show that the new timing will be compatible with the schedule for the next World Cup in Qatar, which is slated to begin Nov. 21, 2022.
With the league at 24 teams in 2019 following the addition of FC Cincinnati, the schedule balance works itself out quite nicely, as teams figure to play the other 11 clubs in their conference twice and the 12 teams from the opposite conference once. Once the league adds Nashville and Miami in 2020 (and presumably Austin and the 28th franchise after that), it remains to be seen how the balance of the scheduling is affected.
The playoffs will begin after the October FIFA window, with that week separating Decision Day from the opening round. The break and first-round bye will give the No. 1 overall seeds a two-week layoff between regular season and conference semifinals.