The leaks all turned out to be true: the MLS Cup Playoffs will adopt a single-elimination format for the 2019 season, expand to 14 teams and be condensed into a calendar that can be played between international breaks. The only previously unknown detail is that the two seven-team brackets will be fixed as opposed to being reseeded after each round.
Although the season will still start in March in 2019, the start of the season may be moved up in subsequent seasons to shorten the offseason.
There are definitely some advantages to this format. The biggest is that the whole tournament will be played between the October and November FIFA breaks, meaning the playoffs will be played in one continuous block without worrying about players being pulled away. Notably, this means the 2022 playoffs will conclude before the World Cup is scheduled to begin that year. There’s also a valid argument to be made that the single-elimination format better rewards the regular season, as home teams have historically won 67.3 percent of single-elimination playoff games compared to the 55.1 percent of higher seeds who advance from two-legged series.
There are definitely some tradeoffs, though.
The biggest is probably another round of playoff expansion that will mean 14 of 24 teams qualify for the post season in 2019, which is still relatively low by MLS standards. But that will diminish rather quickly, as Nashville is slated to join the league in 2020, Inter Miami is scheduled to join in 2021 and Austin FC could join that year as well. By 2022, the league will probably be back to 50 percent of teams making the playoffs (both the NBA and NHL currently admit more than half their teams into the playoffs). It could also be argued that crowning a champion based on the strength of as few as three games feels less “meaty” than the current format which guarantees teams will need to play at least five.
But there are some less obvious — and potentially more consequential — problems as well. One is that the No. 1 seed will have to wait nearly three weeks between the end of the regular season and its first playoff game. Unlike the current format, the team who plays the No. 1 seed in the conference semifinals won’t even be on short rest, having likely played a week earlier.
The other notable issue is that the fixed-bracket creates a scenario where the No. 6 seed could potentially host the conference semifinals while the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds would be guaranteed to play on the road. If the goal, as the league states, is to reward regular-season performance, this seems at least a little counter-intuitive if not downright anti-competitive.