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How MLS’ new playoff format benefits Union, top teams in league



Photo by Carl Gulbish

As if MLS hadn’t made enough changes to its season format ahead of the 2023 campaign, Don Garber and his team officially announced a new format for the league’s end-of-season playoffs. The changes are the second major alteration to MLS’ season, after the introduction of the Leagues Cup.

While the changes only impact the beginning of the playoffs, the introduction of a play-in game for the No. 8 and 9 seeds in each conference and a three-game series for the first round of the playoffs are certainly dramatic. It’s hard to say that any MLS fan asked for these changes, especially based on social media reactions on Tuesday.

Fans’ reactions are understandable. The changes are… how do we word this… a money grab. MLS’ new deal with Apple certainly influences the decision, more games just means more clicks on the tech giant’s streaming service.

MLS created a weird format that is difficult to explain and even more difficult to buy into. The least meaningful matchups get three games, while the rest are regulated to one game? It’s tough to justify. The two-week gap between the first round and the conference semifinals is even harder to pull off.

Still, fans of MLS powerhouses, as much as they’d like to complain (and are within their rights to do so) should recognize the value that it brings their teams’ championship hopes.

If MLS’ playoffs have had one issue, it’s that the opening round is unfair against the top teams. Plenty of times, the best team in a conference (or even the league as a whole) fell to some upstart No. 8 seed. The first-round bye granted to the top seed would come back to hurt them, as the lower seed would be coming off of some dramatic victory, while the better team is trying to adjust to the playoff race after spending a week off.

This happened to the Union in 2020 when the team lost in heartbreaking fashion to the New England Revolution, just one game removed from claiming the club’s first major trophy. The next year, the same happened to the Revs and the Colorado Rapids. The list goes on and on.

In 2023, the top seeds will be able to avoid a first-round exit from some one-off performance, simply because one-off performances will be eliminated. Even one poor game can be vindicated (and likely will be once squad depth comes into play by the third game).

It’s very likely that the Union won’t be the top seed in the Eastern Conference this year. Philadelphia will be playing in four competitions, with the Concacaf Champions League taking a heavy toll on regular season availability.

That said, who cares if the Union is the No. 2 or 3 seed? No one is making Philly fans watch Montreal play the New York Red Bulls three times. Frankly, I doubt I’ll watch any of those games other than the third, assuming the series even reaches three games.

However, if the Union finishes atop the Eastern Conference (as they are one of the favorites to do), then all the better for Philly fans. It all but guarantees a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and a very good chance at an MLS Cup run.

Philly fans don’t have to like the new setup. But they should appreciate it. It’s one more step that can help the team win its first MLS Cup.

Joe is a junior at Penn State studying journalism and sports studies, among other things. He's covered the Union since 2017 and has written for Brotherly Game / Philadelphia Soccer Now since 2019. He seeks to answer life's greatest questions, such as, "How did I get here?" and "Where is that large automobile?" You can find Joe on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email (

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