New MLS playoff format is winning the hearts of American soccer fans

Graphic by Jared Shapiro

Elise Covert, Senior Writer

Major League Soccer (MLS) kicked off its 2019 postseason on Oct. 19. Six first-round games, spread over two days, provided American soccer fans with dramatic and entertaining football action. The 12 teams tallied 27 goals over the course of the six contests, with three needing extra time to decide a winner.

It was the first time that the single-elimination format had been implemented throughout the MLS playoffs in its 23-season history. In December 2018, MLS announced a new playoff format to be unveiled for the 2019 season. Fourteen of the league’s 24 teams qualified for the postseason, up from 12 in 2018, and only the top team in each of the two conferences earned a first-round bye. Moving away from the aggregate series which used to happen for the conference semifinals and finals, the league developed a four-round playoff structure — each round single-elimination — that culminates in the MLS Cup final.

Fans were supportive of the single-elimination format when it was released last year, but seeing it in action had many raving on social media.

In riveting action on Oct. 19-20,  Real Salt Lake nearly pulled off what would have been a shocking road upset of the Portland Timbers, the 2018 runners-up. The Philadelphia Union rallied from two goals down — twice — at home to seal an extra-time win, their first playoff win in franchise history. The defending champs Atlanta United staved off New England with a narrow 1-0 victory. And in a twist that even the most dedicated soccer fans don’t witness often, Toronto pushed past D.C. United with four goals in the 30 minutes of extra time to surge to a 5-1 win. All other matches were decided by a one-goal differential.

It was exactly the kind of action you’d expect from a win-or-go-home scenario; teams didn’t have a game two to fall back on. With five of six higher-seeded teams winning their matches and moving on, the first round of the playoffs demonstrated that a single-elimination format doesn’t devalue the work teams put in during the regular season.

Soccer analyst and journalist Jeff Rueter called it “beautifully stupid,” and Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer called the action “intense” three times in a six sentence post-game interview, to give you a sense.

The current slump of the U.S. Men’s National Team has certainly been a downer for American soccer fans, but MLS is proving to be a bright spot. According to Nielsen, MLS has seen a 27 percent rise in interest since 2012. The league has consistently invested in the fan experience, and the expansion of team payrolls to sign European stars like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimović has only served to grow the league’s passionate fan base.

What’s more, fans won’t have to wait long for a new MLS champion to be crowned on November 10. The entire playoff season only stretches three weeks, compared to the prior format that stretched into December. Judging by the reactions to round one, the drama, emotion and fast-paced play will likely give MLS the spark it needs to continue its impressive run of increasing popularity in the United States.

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