Breaking down the new MLS playoff format

On Monday afternoon, Major League Soccer announced a new playoff format beginning in 2019. The new system provides a far greater advantage for the higher seeded teams, who will no longer have to travel for the first leg of their quarterfinal and semifinal series. 
In 2019, seven teams from each conference will make the MLS playoffs. The first seed -- the team with the best regular season record in each conference -- will receive a first-round bye, which leads to the following set of matchups:
  • 2 vs 7
  • 3 vs 6
  • 4 vs 5
The winner of the 4 vs 5 game will face the one seed, while the winners of the 2 vs 7 and 3 vs 6 games will meet. 
There are a variety of reasons Major League Soccer is making this change. First, the format used in 2018 stretches over the November international break, creating a lull in the middle of the postseason and an opportunity for players to wear themselves down or pick up injuries. This year a number of teams had key personnel involved in international friendlies during the playoffs, including Red Bulls' Tyler Adams. 
Second, and related, is that the new format will allow many players to rest and recover during the October international break, hopefully providing a platform for more energetic soccer in the postseason. Anybody that doesn't play for their country in October will be able to take a quick breather before the sprint to the MLS Cup begins in earnest. Compare that to the 2018 format, which forced the Union to dive directly into a playoff match just three days after the season concluded. That turnaround was difficult for Philly, and it likely played a role in New York City's inability to stave off Atlanta United in the first leg of their Conference Quarterfinals matchup. Having just returned from a long-term injury, Yangel Herrera was brilliant over 180 minutes against the Union. Those exertions took the edge off the Venezuelan's game against Atlanta, and the result was a far muckier performance from Dome Torrent's men. 
Third, the new format fixes what in many ways was a strange and obvious issue: In 2018 and before, the lower seeded team hosted the first leg of a playoff series. In 78 two-legged series, the higher seeded team won only 55.1% of the time, while the higher seed has been victorious 67.3% of the time in one-legged series. The culprit for this disparity can be easily identified once you think of a two-legged series as 180 minutes of soccer. Playing 90 minutes at home allows the lower seed to be aggressive tactically as they seek to use home field advantage to earn a lead. Importantly, this means both teams' tactical choices in the second leg are strongly influenced by the outcome of the first leg. If the lower seed built a lead, they can sit deep and let the higher seed open themselves up by pushing numbers forward. The advantage gained in other sports by hosting the final game in a series is negated by the cumulative nature of the MLS system; you don't wipe the slate clean after a first leg loss, instead you must strategize to overcome that defeat. 
Fourth, the new format will allow the playoffs to conclude in early November, which is often warmer than late November and early December. From a fan experience perspective, this is a plus. For clubs that, like cold weather NFL teams, are used to the winter weather and can use it to their advantage, this may be a bit of a downer. 
The final bit of logic behind this change? It allows for a seventh team in each conference to make the postseason. As MLS continues to expand, finagling a way for more clubs to reach the playoffs becomes an important consideration in building an exciting product for fans.
Key takeaways
  • 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs begin October 19
  • MLS Cup: November 10
  • Seven teams from each conference make the playoffs
  • Top seed receives a bye

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