The MLS Playoffs will start next week. As you probably know, they’re rolling out yet another new format. This will be the seventh different playoff format that has been used since the Seattle Sounders entered the league in 2009, basically one every other year.
Like all of them, this format has some pluses and minuses. For most of the tournament, MLS has stuck with the single-elimination structure that has proven to be popular over the previous four seasons.
New this year are a few things: 1. The total field was expanded from 14 to 18 teams; 2. A “play-in” game was added for the Nos. 8-9 teams; 3. The “first round” is now played in a best-of-3 format.
On its face, I don’t actually mind any of these changes. As long as MLS doesn’t keep expanding the field as it inevitably grows to a 32-team league, I’m fine with 18 teams getting in. I’d like to see the 8-9 play-in game officially treated as something separate from the playoffs, but that’s quibbling. Competitively, the match creates both a disincentive for teams that finish at the tail-end of the playoff race, while also providing a genuine advantage to the top seed who gets to face an opponent likely coming off two straight must-win matches just a few days apart.
I’m also broadly OK with the idea of a 3-game playoff series. I obviously understand that this is not a format we see in the world of soccer, but I think it has some merit as long as it is treated appropriately. I like the idea of sort of building a narrative around a series and there’s some real potential for that in a three-game series that we don’t always get in a standard home-and-home format. I think it also does a better job of balancing home-field advantage for the higher seed, as there’s a real benefit to playing two entire matches at home as opposed to the more theoretical advantage of hosting the second leg and potentially overtime in a two-legged series.
The problem, however, is in the details. First off, I don’t love that the series is played over three weeks. Not only does that feel like almost too much space, but it also creates a problem on the calendar. As it is now, there’s an international break between the first round and conference semifinals. That means teams who win their series in two games will have to take three weeks off until their next match. That’s so long as to no longer be an advantage.
My preferred scheduling format would see teams take a full week off between Games 1 and 2, with Game 3 potentially scheduled midweek. That would allow the conference semifinals to be played before the international break and give a genuine advantage to teams who win their series in two games. That would also push the international break to between the conference semifinals and finals, which isn’t ideal but still preferable from a scheduling perspective.
But my biggest beef with the 3-game series is how it’s formatted. For some reason, MLS decided that it’s a race to two wins, rather than five points (which is the format MLS used when it first had three-game series in the early stages of the league). To accommodate that, every game that’s tied will go directly to a shootout.
That creates what I think is a sort of nightmare scenario where Team A wins the first game in regulation, loses Game 2 in a shootout and is then eliminated when it loses Game 3 in another shootout. Effectively, Team B would win the series without actually winning any matches while Team A would be eliminated without actually losing any matches.
What’s wild is the solution is so obvious that I’m almost shocked MLS isn’t using it. Instead of a race to two wins, MLS could simply borrow from MLS Next Pro by awarding three points for a regulation win, two points for a shootout win and one point for a shootout loss.
In this format, Team A would be sitting on four points after Game 2 with Team B on two. That would mean Team A only needs a tie in Game 3, while Team B would have to push for a regulation win. Team A could still advance after two games if they won the Game 2 shootout (or win that game in regulation). Game 3 could also still potentially be decided in a shootout if Team B were to win Game 2 in regulation.
I’m not really sure what the potential downside is to this format, which is why I’m so confused MLS didn’t adopt it. In the meantime, I suppose a team prone to ties – like the Sounders – may stand to benefit from the current format. But even if they do, I’d like to think MLS will come to its senses and update the format in future seasons.
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Looking back at the week's news
American soccer branding is generally bland; MLS playoff chances;
Bland and safe, 2025's MLS expansion team's logo could be for any team, in any sport, in any city. The men's soccer community is losing something that screams SoCal for something that blares RoboCop.
Washington Spirit are in the middle of a rebrand. For the season they've been a blank slate of black & white. This week they seemed to soft launch black and yellow, looking a bit like the Spirit Halloween stores that pop-up every October. Similar to the San Diego crest, the Black and Yellow has little to no connection to the local community, unless you count the Washington Commanders, but as the District Press points out that's not a connection a club should make.
American Soccer Analysis is taking over where 538 (RIP) left off. The match really likes the Seattle Sounders chances in the playoffs, having them as the second-most likely Western Conference team to make MLS Cup.
ASA also has an NWSL Best XI. It includes Sofia Huerta and Alana Cook from Reign.
- Washington Spirit are rebranding, and seeking a new coach. Mark Parsons is out. Parsons is one of the greats in NWSL coaching circles and now a free agent.
- Christine Sinclair, Canadian legend and hated Thorn in our side, is retiring from international play.
- Michael Bradly retired from professional play. That ends the era of TFC being good in a year when they were awful.
- Ten years ago the NWSL had tiny crowds and matches were hard to find on TV. It's grown dramatically since then.
- US Soccer is going to explore a rule forbidding parental influence, which seems very good and probably needs to start well before the senior national team.
- 2. Bundesliga club Fortuna Düsseldorf is testing free entry for home games.
- How did Rhode Island get a $124 million stadium downtown? One rich person paid for almost all of it.
- Israeli teams cannot play international competitions at home. Palestinian sides haven't done so in years.
- Swedish fans are recommended to not wear national team colors when travelling.
Puget Sound Soccer
Reign are on their playoff quest; Sounders seek momentum.
Reign host Angel City FC tonight at Lumen Field. Discounted tickets that support Sounder at Heart are still available. If you can't make it to Lumen, you can watch at 7:00 pm PT on Paramount+ and CBS Golazo Network (that's free). The winner heads to San Diego to face the Wave, and possibly just stay there for the Final.
It's MLS Decision Day.
At 3 pm PT the Eastern Conference kicks off. Four matches are available for free on Apple TV. The best of those is Cincinnati v. Atlanta United. But the day is set up for MLS 360 on MLS Season Pass.
At 6 pm PT the Western Conference kicks off. Four matches are available for free on Apple TV, including the Sounders at St. Louis. If you're running a second screen Vancouver Whitecaps host LAFC on Apple TV. Those results will have the biggest impact as to who the Sounders host in the first round of the playoffs.
North Carolina Courage vs NJ/NY Gotham FC at 4 pm PT on CBS Sports Network and Paramount+ in the other side of the NWSL Playoffs. This is the only Atlantic coast home game of the playoffs.