Drama, momentum & separation: Breaking down the new MLS playoff format

MLS Cup trophy - 2016

The 2019 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs will look very different from previous iterations.

Starting in 2019, a total of 14 teams will make the playoffs, up from 12. The top seed in each conference will be the only teams with a bye (rather than the top two) and all playoff matches will be single-elimination games with the higher seed hosting. Gone are the two-legged series starting after the opening Knockout Round.

And when it comes to scheduling, the playoffs will start (Oct. 19) and finish (Nov. 10) between the October and November FIFA international breaks. All the action condensed in a three-week period.

As the league continues to evolve, with an eye on incoming expansion, the new playoff structure marks another checkpoint. Here's why the new format matters:

More playoff drama

One game, one night. That's all you've got to advance or go home. What else is there to say? 

Of the four Knockout Round games in 2018, three came down to the final seconds. That round rarely disappointed and now the entire bracket will look more like that. I can ride with that.

Regular season matters even more

Now, the regular season means more than ever, even if your club isn't in the running for the Supporters' Shield – every step up the ladder of the conference table can be the difference between a road playoff match and hosting one. 

There's a statistical argument to supplement conventional wisdom: In one-game playoff matches the higher seed had a .673 winning percentage in 49 games compared to the .551 winning percentage in 78 two-legged series over the years. The New York Red Bulls and Seattle Sounders may have loved a one-off at home rather than an aggregate series against eventual MLS Cup finalists Atlanta United and Portland Timbers.

No break

With no FIFA international match date to interrupt the playoff proceedings, the ball will get rolling on Oct. 19 and avalanche down for three weeks, culminating with MLS Cup final. That's going to be some ride.


The move to 14 playoff teams isn't one with a limited view. With projected league expansion to 28 teams, the new 14-team field means that half the league (quick maths!) will make the playoffs. 

For comparison, the NBA currently has 16 of 30 franchises make the playoffs (53.3 percent) and the NHL has 51.6 percent of their teams make the playoffs, though that'll also drop to 50 percent after their next expansion is complete. 

Better weather (hopefully)

When Toronto FC hosted MLS Cup in 2016 and 2017, the weather wasn't exactly tropical. Not that a November MLS Cup in Toronto would cause people to pack shorts and tank tops, but it wouldn't hurt.

Playoff build-up

In 2018, Decision Day preceded the first Knockout Round games by just three days. Sunday to Wednesday isn't nearly enough time to unpack everything that happened on the league's regular-season apex while also previewing the playoffs.  

Starting next season, thanks to the October FIFA international fixture dates, there'll nearly be two weeks between Decision Day and the first round of the playoffs. That's ample time to give Decision Day the burn it deserves and fully prepare, while building anticipation, for the playoffs to start.

Separation makes the heart grow fonder, right?