MLS expands play-off format with more teams and increase in games

February 23 – The MLS has revamped its play-off format, increasing the number of teams that qualify as well as bringing in a new best-of-3 series at the first round.

The new format will see the play-offs expanded to include the first nine teams in each conference with the opening being a wildcard game between the 8th and 9th teams for a spot in the next round.

That stage will see the eight teams paired off for the best-of-three series – seeds 1 vs wildcard, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6, and 4 vs 5. The qualifier will be the first to win two games. No game can be tied and matches will go straight to penalties if they end drawn.

The highest seeded team will host the third game of the series.

The four winners of this round will qualify for the single match knock-out semi finals.

The new format holds a number of commercial advantages in that adding a ninth team in each conference keeps the season alive for more clubs as it nears its ends. The best-of-three format also gives all clubs at least one home fixture.

The increase in games also provides the MLS’s new broadcast streaming partner Apple with a lot more meaningful live matches and opportunity to sell MLS Season Pass subscriptions.

The criticism comes with the increased number of games players face, especially taking into account the new Leagues Cup competition with Liga MX and expanded Concacaf club competitions.

This has lead calls for a revision of squad sizes and the club salary cap to allow more higher quality players cope with the workload. Currently a Major League Soccer club’s active roster is comprised of up to 30 players.

The first 20 players are classed as ‘senior’ players and count against the club’s salary cap, which in 2022 was $4.9 million. These players will fulfil the bulk of a club’s workload over the season and where more players are likely needed to fulfil what could end up being a 60-game season for some clubs.

The maximum salary allowable for a player in 2022 was $615,000.

The 10 remaining roster places are allocated according to criteria including a minimum number of home grown players, as well as minimum salaries varying between $85,000 in 2022 for players 21 to 24, and $65,000 for the remainder of the squad.

To prevent player burn-out and keep the competitive quality high the ‘senior’ roster will likely need to be expanded with an increased salary cap to allow clubs to recruit the right level of player.

The 2023 MLS season kicks off this weekend. Wild Card play-off matches will be played at the end of October while the play-off final will be played December 3.

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