MLS Playoffs Format 2023 Explained: How MLS Playoffs work?
The MLS announced a new playoff format. Here is everything you need to know about the expanded 2023 MLS playoff format and how many teams qualify.
Teams in the MLS must always be ready for change. Whether it’s a new expansion franchise, a new preseason tournament including European teams, or the looming prospect of relegation and promotion, Major League Soccer is always evolving.
This Betway Insider analysis examines the changing face of the MLS Playoffs, which in 2023 will feature more teams, more rounds, and a tweak in the postseason format. Soccer fans should keep reading to learn more.
When are the 2023 MLS Playoffs?
The Wild Card Round -- the official start of the 2023 MLS Playoffs -- will be played from Oct. 25-26. The league’s multiple Round 1 best-of-3 series will take place between Oct. 28 and Nov. 12.
After a brief break, the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals will be held from Nov. 25 to Dec. 3, meaning no MLS games will be played on Thanksgiving, even though past Thanksgiving games produced some of the highest TV ratings in MLS history.
The MLS Cup Final will be held on Dec. 9.
New 2023 MLS Playoffs Format Explained
What is the new MLS Playoff format? For 2023, MLS has indeed changed the postseason format used in previous seasons. There are now more teams, more rounds, more incentives to be higher seeds, and more excitement. Let’s walk through it, step-by-step.
The 2023 MLS season features 29 teams (15 in the Eastern Conference, 14 in the Western Conference). The top nine teams in each conference will qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs after a 34-game regular season.
Some 62.1 percent of the league will qualify for the MLS playoffs this year -- up from 50 percent in 2022. However, back when the league only had 10 teams in 2003 and 2004, eight of the 10 (80 percent) reached the postseason.
Nevertheless, the 62.1 percent figure for 2023 is significantly higher than the percentage of teamd that reach the MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL postseasons. None of those “Big Four” leagues allows more than 54 percent of its teams to advance.
Wild Card (2 games)
Step 1 in the new MLS Playoff format involves the Wild Card matches. The No. 8 seed in each conference will host the No. 9 seed in a single-game elimination. These matches will NOT feature extra time. Instead, ties will be directly settled via penalty kicks after 90 minutes (plus injury time) have elapsed.
The Wild Card game winners, regardless of seed, will face the No. 1 seed in their respective conference. This automatic pairing helps set up the overall MLS playoff bracket.
Round 1 (8 to 16 games)
Round 1 of the MLS Playoffs will include the winner of each conference’s Wild Card game and its remaining top seven seeds. Each first-round matchup will be a best-of-3 series with no ties (and no aggregate score).
In any given series, Game 1 and Game 3 (if necessary) will be hosted by the higher-seeded team. The lower seed will host Game 2. As is the case in the Wild Card round, matches will go directly to penalty kicks after 90 minutes (plus injury time).
MLS Conference Semifinals (4 games)
By the time the league reaches its Conference Semifinals, four teams will remain in each conference. The winner of the No. 1 vs. Wild Card winner matchup will face the winner of a series between Nos. 4 and 5 seeds. Meanwhile, the winner of the Round 1 series between the No. 2 and No. 7 teams will face the winner of the No. 3 vs. No. 6 series.
The higher seed in any given matchup will host a single-elimination game to determine a conference finalist. Unlike previous rounds, the Conference Semifinals will go to a 30-minute extra-time period if tied at the end of regulation. If the score is still tied after extra time, the match will go to penalties.
MLS Conference Finals (2 games)
The Conference Finals will look a lot like the Conference Semifinals -- single elimination, hosted by the higher seed, extra-time if tied (and then penalties). However, the prize is different -- a spot in the MLS Cup Final.
How many games are there in the MLS Cup Final?
The MLS Cup Final is a winner-take-all match hosted by the team with the better regular-season record. The game will be played on Dec. 9, which creates the possibility that a warm-weather team could find itself playing in a cold-weather venue.
Over the course of the 2023 MLS playoffs, there will be a total of between 25 and 33 games. This number will vary based on how many of the Round 1 playoffs series require the maximum three games to decide.
Difference from previous MLS Playoff Formats
The first difference between the 2023 MLS playoffs and its predecessors is the number of teams involved. The 2023 postseason will include 18 clubs, up from 14 in 2022. Historically, that’s a big number, since MLS started with only eight playoff teams in its inaugural season. The increase in teams results from the creation of the Wild Card Round, which was added for this season.
The 2022 MLS playoffs provided Round 1 byes to the top seeds in each conference. Those byes are gone, forcing No. 1 seeds to get past Wild-Card winners in order to reach Round 2.
How many teams make the 2023 MLS Playoffs?
A total of 18 teams will make the 2023 MLS Playoffs -- nine from each conference. Thanks to this expansion, teams like Inter Miami (currently in last place in the Eastern Conference) will have a chance to sneak in the back door and reach the postseason.
Do Messi and Inter Miami have a chance to win it all this season? Betway currently gives Inter Miami +3300 odds to win the 2023 MLS Cup -- the 11th-best in the league. That might be too high considering how poorly this team has performed in its games prior to Messi’s arrival.
The 2023 MLS playoff schedule will be announced at the end of the season.
Does the MLS Cup have extra time?
The MLS Cup Final will go into extra time if the match is tied at the end of regulation. Both the 2021 and 2022 finals went into extra time with the match tied, and both of those contests eventually went to penalties.
Bet on MLS Odds at Betway
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