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Volume 22 No. 43
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Closing Shot: Survive and Advance

MLS rolls into the postseason with a new one-and-done playoff format that increases the pressure on each team but should amplify the attention on the league.
The New England Revolution sealed a playoff spot on Sept. 29 and will now face defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United FC on Oct. 19.
Photo: getty images
The New England Revolution sealed a playoff spot on Sept. 29 and will now face defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United FC on Oct. 19.
Photo: getty images
The New England Revolution sealed a playoff spot on Sept. 29 and will now face defending MLS Cup champion Atlanta United FC on Oct. 19.
Photo: getty images

Whenever Major League Soccer researched fan preferences in recent years, the league heard a desire for “games of consequence.”

This weekend, MLS debuts its new postseason system built around single-elimination matches — undoubtedly games of consequence. The new format led to a more competitive regular season conclusion, which in turn helped produce some muscular digital metrics.

Chris Schlosser, senior vice president of MLS Digital, said his team was still analyzing the numbers, but early indications showed #DecisionDay, the regular season’s final round of games when 12 matches kicked off at the same time, to be the league’s biggest day, digitally, of 2019.

“Any time your best day of the season is your last day, you’re feeling pretty good,” said Schlosser. “We saw it really build over the last several weeks of the year.”

The league’s previous format consisted of two rounds of two-legged playoffs, leading to the one-match MLS Cup final. In that system, the lower seed hosted the first match and the higher seed the second match. Several other aspects — aggregate scoring and the away goals rule — showed the format’s international influence.

In the new single-elimination format, the top seven teams in the East and West conferences make the playoffs, with the top seed from each conference receiving a first-round bye. The high seed in each matchup hosts. Schlosser thinks that American audiences will identify more easily with a one-and-done format similar to the NCAA basketball tournament.

MLS officials watched the new format affect the league’s competition as teams scrapped the whole way for not only playoff berths, but either a first-round bye or hosting rights. The top tie-breaker for playoff seeding — most games won — was telling. Teams took notice.

“They’re starting to play a different way knowing that hosting a home game or having a certain seed is much more important than it’s ever been,” said Seth Bacon, MLS senior vice president of media. “It’s created a lot more competition at the end of the year, it’s going to create a very exciting MLS Cup playoffs, and hopefully a huge opportunity for us with MLS Cup.” 

In another nod to March Madness, the league is debuting an MLS Cup bracket game on its website and app. And the 2019 playoffs will have the broadest domestic distribution in league history, including the MLS Cup final’s return to ABC for the first time since 2008. 

Will the changes be enough to help MLS fight through the crowded October and November sports calendar and make a dent on the American sports public?

“We’ll see once we’re out the other side, but I think we’re very hopeful,” said Schlosser. “We think we’re positioned for success.”