Major League Soccer unveiled a sweeping overhaul of its playoffs on Monday, doing away with two-leg, aggregate series in favor of one-game knockout rounds.
The league also expanded the playoff field from six teams per conference to seven, in conjunction with FC Cincinnati becoming MLS' 24th team next year.
The new format will see three matchups in the first round - 4 vs. 5, 3 vs. 6 and 2 vs. 7 - with the No. 1 seed getting a bye. The conference semifinals will then be 1 vs. 4/5 and 2/7 vs. 3/6. The higher seed will host every game, putting a greater importance on regular-season standings.
This style of postseason has been championed for years by those who back the drama that one-game rounds can bring. The greater reward for higher seeds will also be welcomed. (Just ask the New York Red Bulls, who’ve won three of the last six Supporters' Shields but failed to reach the MLS Cup final every time.)
Critics of the one-game format feared low-scoring, play-to-lose soccer. Lower-seeded team owners also feared losing the money and exposure they got from home games in the old format. And there have been gripes for some time that MLS changes its playoff format too often. This will be the ninth variation in the league’s 23-year history.
But both in terms of talent and finances, MLS is at a point where this setup should be a success. And one of its more subtle benefits shouldn’t be overlooked: instead of dragging the playoffs out for a month and a half, the whole thing will be done in three weeks between FIFA’s October and November international windows.
In 2019, MLS will end the regular season on Oct. 6, break for the FIFA window, start the playoffs on Oct. 19, and have the MLS Cup final on Nov. 10.
The break during the October FIFA window will give teams ample time to rest players not with national teams, and, of course, to sell tickets.
The November window was a perennial headache, as it cut off momentum and took high-profile players away from their club teams at the height of the postseason.
Ending the playoffs in December was also a big gamble in terms of weather, as the 2016 and 2017 finals in freezing Toronto showed.
The earlier end to the regular season is also news. In the past, the last week was at the end of October. Next year, it will end on Oct. 6. The start of the season will remain on the first weekend of March. That means there will be more midweek games along the way.