Major League Soccer introduced a new (or old, depending on how you look at it) first round playoff format, and not much has changed since 1996 — it still makes little sense.
In America we do soccer our way, for better or worse. From countdown clocks and the old shootout to strange playoff structures, MLS will do what it can to always be the odd kid in the classroom.
In 2023, the league introduced a new playoff format that took cues from the its inaugural playoffs in 1996. After a wild card round, teams would face off in a best-of-three series in the first round, with single elimination taking back over in the ensuing rounds.
Upon the new format’s announcement, many were understandably confused. Perhaps the biggest problem, much like the original 1996 format, is a best-of-three series rewards survival, and not so much winning. With no draws in play (what’s more un-American than a tie?), it’s very plausible for a team to win two games on penalty kicks to advance over a team that convincingly won one out of the three matches.
In fact, there is no additional reward for defeating an opponent 4-0, as aggregate score wasn’t taken into account. Whether the final score was 1-0, 10-0, or 0-0 (4-3), all wins are counted the same.
Now with the first round over and a perfect hindsight vision, we can properly take a look back at how the first round went, and if the critics were right.
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The only upset in the first round was a big one. Eighth-seeded Sporting Kansas City defeated top-ranked St. Louis City SC in a two-game sweep, ending what was a magical inaugural season for St. Louis.
Only two playoff series needed penalty kicks to determine the winner, with one needing to go to a shootout in back-to-back matches. In the Eastern bracket, Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati needed to win game two from the spot against the New York Red Bulls after making quick work of their lower-ranked opponents 3-0 in game one. The Red Bulls had chances to take an upset victory, but ultimately fell 8-7 in the shootout.
Out West, things got a little more heated. Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake saw consecutive matches go to penalties after the Dynamo took home a close 2-1 win in the first game. The scorelines in game two and three in regular and extra time were the same — 1-1 — but RSL couldn’t replicate their game two penalty victory, and fell in game three 4-3 in the shootout.
While unorthodox for the soccer purist, a three-game series can be exciting if each game is tight, like it was for Houston and RSL. Back in 1996, the MetroStars and DC United squared off in an instant classic first round series that saw the MetroStars come back twice to tie game 1 and eventually win via penalty shootout, before eventual league champions DC United won games two and three, with the final match being decided by an 89th-minute penalty kick.
That series had it all — a rivalry that was brewing, star players, and NHL-like fights all over the field. Things got so heated that Tab Ramos actually spit in the face of his fellow United States men’s national team player John Harkes, and even cool and calm players like Italian international Roberto Donadoni lost his temper.
However, those series seem to be outliers, and it would be unrealistic to expect one of them every year. The simplest question is if MLS wants more games, why not make each round, save for the play-in game, a two-leg series with goal aggregate, and a one-game MLS Cup? Give the MLS Cup Playoffs a Champions League feel to it.
Being old enough to remember the 1996 season, and as strange as the three-game series seemed back then, today it’s more about MLS being MLS. It’s is a league that has never conformed to the normality of soccer. Innovation has always been on the top of commissioner Don Garber’s mind, and he has never been afraid to fail.
For a new generation of fans, this might seem new, and for older fans we have been here before. It was silly the first time, but now we have accepted the league for what it is the second go around.
If a three-game series was an effort by MLS to get more games on Apple TV, it could have gone the simpler route and made the entire playoffs a two-leg affair. However, MLS has never gone the simple route — it’s a place where you can always expect the unexpected.
So enjoy it for what it is: soccer done the American way.