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The MLS Cup Playoffs are getting a radical new format

Nine teams will now qualify from each conference, and a best-of-three series is now involved, too.

More Queens playoff atmospheres like this to come in 2023? | Photograph by Katie Cahalin, courtesy

The format for the MLS Cup Playoffs will change dramatically in 2023. The number of teams to qualify for postseason play in each conference will jump from seven to nine. The eighth and ninth seeds will now face off in a win-or-go-home “Wild Card” match, with the winner moving on to play each conference’s top seed in “Round One.” 

“Round One” represents the biggest format change MLS has experimented with to date. It will introduce best-of-three series to decide who moves on to the Conference Semifinals. The top four seeds get the home-field advantage of a potential two home matches in Round One, with all teams guaranteed at least one match in front of their home fans. All Round One matches must have clear winners, so any draws after 90 minutes are set to go straight to decisive penalty kick shootouts. 

From Round One forward, the playoff format remains unchanged from last season. The Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals, and MLS Cup remain single-elimination matches that, if level after 90 minutes, go to two extra 15-minute halves and penalty kicks to determine winners. 

The Athletic was first to report news of the specific playoff format MLS has settled on. The change means that 62% of clubs in MLS will now qualify for the postseason, with all teams in the playoffs save for potential road losers in the Wild Card round now getting a chance to host a postseason match.

The new format also significantly bumps up the potential total number of high-stakes playoff matches that will be available for broadcast by the league’s new exclusive streaming partner, Apple. In the 2022 format, 13 was set in stone as the number of playoff matches to expect on the way to crowning a new MLS Cup champion. In 2023, there’s the potential for as many as 33, if, by some incredible bit of only-in-MLS chaos, every single Round One series were to go the full three-match distance. 

MLS is hardly alone among professional American sports leagues in tinkering with its playoff format. The NBANFLMLB and NHL have also all recently made changes ranging from minor to significant to their postseasons, seemingly in the name of selling more lucrative playoff tickets and satisfying league broadcast partners. 

In this instance, MLS is oddly announcing its official playoff plans just days before the 2023 regular season kicks off. That fact did not sit well with Inter Miami manager Phil Neville, who told The Athletic the league’s tardiness in finalizing its playoffs was “poor” and “not elite,” and that “this should’ve been decided two months ago.” (Interestingly, it now also appears that Inter Miami has decided to blacklist The Athletic in retaliation for Phil Neville opening his mouth and sharing too much of an opinion about promotion/relegation in the presence of non-MLS-affiliated reporters.)

For New York City FC, extra playoff slots and a clearer path to a guaranteed home playoff match seem like positives. The club has a seven-season playoff qualification streak on the line in 2023, but will be attempting to keep that streak alive with a heavily remade roster. 

A number of MLS observers and experts expect NYCFC to tumble down the Eastern Conference table–but the club would now have to drop all the way from 4th in 2022 to 10th in 2023 to actually miss out on postseason play. A fall that precipitous is possible, but with these changes introduced by MLS, the league has lessened the degree of difficulty for reaching its playoffs by a decent amount.