The driving force behind the latest MLS Cup Playoff format change, an unpopular move to re-introduce the best-of-three series for the first time in two decades, was the desire to create more high leverage games for the league’s new worldwide streaming partner, Apple TV.
Despite uncompelling results — with seven of eight so far decided by a margin of two or more goals — Apple TV’s insistence on lengthening the postseason was sensible.
The previous MLS format — with an all single-elimination bracket — shorter relative to its regular season than three of the four North American sports, with no team’s schedule lengthened by more than four matches, or 11.8% of their league schedule. By contrast, an NFL reaching the Super Bowl could see their season lengthened by as much as 23.5%. And NBA and NHL teams reaching their respective finals could lengthen their season by as much as 34.1%.
But the challenge was how to lengthen the MLS postseason while still maintaining the urgency and momentum that gave the 2019 through 2022 editions an organic sense of intensity and finality. That hasn’t happened.
So what if the league changes formats again? They could go to a world-cup-style format, with group play followed by a knockout round, something that was reportedly under consideration for this season. They could also return to home-and-home, total-goals series that were part of the MLS postseason for more than a decade.
But there’s one common tournament format that might work even better to suit both the needs of Apple TV and MLS fans. It’s double elimination, a competitive structure most common in American sports in NCAA baseball and softball.
A seeded double elimination tournament begins exactly the same as a seeded single-elimination tournament. But instead of being eliminated, losers drop to an “elimination” or loser’s bracket to play for their survival, while winners play on in the “championship or winner’s bracket. Eventually, the winner of the championship bracket plays the winner of the elimination bracket. If the elimination bracket champ wins, there is a rematch, since at that point each team at that point has one loss.
Here’s a diagram of a seeded, eight-team double elimination bracket:
Let’s imagine that next year’s playoffs were contested as two eight-team, double elimination brackets, one for the Eastern and Western Conferences, with the MLS Cup final remaining a single, winner-take-all game. There’s several ways the competition would benefit.
More predictable match calendar: A double-elimination bracket would result in a competition that had between 29 and 31 playoff matches. That’s a narrower range than the 26-33 matches we could see at this year’s playoffs.
More guaranteed win-or-go-home games: In a double-elimination tournament, at least 13 matches and as many as 15 matches would be win-or-go-home matches for both teams. In the current format, we are only guaranteed 9 such win-or-go-home games, although as many as 17 are possible.
Second chances, but reward for winning: The double-elimination tournament leaves more room for error than a single-elimination format. But teams that keep winning are rewarded in the form of fewer games and more time between games. A team that remains unbeaten would only have to play five matches to win MLS Cup. A team that lost its first or second game would have to play eight.
Less match-up dependent: In a double-elimination bracket, back-to-back matches against the same opponent only occur when only two teams are remaining. This makes it less likely that a team will get eliminated simply because they were drawn against an opponent that had their number.
There are some drawbacks. The most glaring is that it’s not a familiar format in most American sports or in soccer elsewhere. The conference final stage is also a little clunky, given that the “elimination bracket” winner would have to win two games over the same opponent in a short time.
But given Major League Soccer and Apple TV’s particular needs, it might represent the best hope for balance between a competition long enough for the league’s new streaming partners, and short enough to maintain urgency and momentum.