Major League Soccer playoffs kick off with a new format, a best-of-3 first-round series

Major League Soccer’s playoffs have a new twist this season: the opening round will be a best-of-three series.

As a result, there's the possibility of 24 first-round playoff games.

There were mixed feelings about the new format among the players.

"I think it’s an interesting new model that they've come up with, I don't know what the reasoning is behind it. It’s similar to a lot of the other sports in American culture, baseball, basketball, hockey, where they have these games series," Vancouver Whitecaps striker Brian White said. "Hopefully it brings more eyes to the league, more attention. Looking forward to this new experience.”

LAFC's Carlos Vela, who has been in the league for six seasons, was not necessarily a fan.

"I don't understand what is the point of three games in the first round,' Vela said. “And after that, three more games to win the championships. I don't know exactly what they are thinking.”

The playoffs will be missing the league's top draw, Inter Miami's Lionel Messi. Miami, which finished second-to-last in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs, is instead expected to head to China in early November for the team's first international tour.

The 16-team field was set after a pair of play-in games Wednesday.

The New York Red Bulls defeated Charlotte 5-2 in the Eastern Conference's play-in match and will face top-seeded Cincinnati at TQL Stadium on Sunday. The series will move to Red Bull Arena on Nov. 4, then back to Cincinnati for a third game, if necessary.

Sporting Kansas City advanced in the Western Conference play-in on penalties after a scoreless draw with the San Jose Earthquakes. Sporting will face expansion St. Louis, the West’s top seed, on Sunday at CITYPARK.

There’s another new wrinkle this season. If the games are tied in regulation, they will go straight to penalties rather than extra-time periods.

The conference semifinals and finals will be single-elimination, reverting back to extra time before going to penalties in the event of a draw.

The games will start Saturday and go until Nov. 12. The conference semifinals are set for Nov. 25-26, with the conference finals played Dec. 2-3. The MLS Cup final will take place on Dec. 9, played at the home of the team that collected more points in the regular season.


Cincinnati won the Supporters' Shield for best regular-season performance with 69 points. The team finished in last place for three straight seasons after joining MLS as an expansion team in 2019. Last year, Cincinnati finished with the No. 5 seed and advanced to the conference semifinals before losing to Philadelphia.

Coach Pat Noonan said pressure is on the team in the playoffs — in a good way — after winning the Shield.

“It should feel like more pressure. You’ve won a trophy already and so people, teams will look at that and say, the expectation is to go and do it again. That’s our expectation in our pursuit of winning another trophy. So it should feel a little different," Noonan said. "That’s OK. These guys have stepped up all year.”

The East’s second seed, Orlando City, will host No. 7 Nashville. Third-seeded Columbus will play No. 6 Atlanta, and fourth-seeded Philadelphia will host No. 5 New England.

Philadelphia and New England kick things off Saturday at Subaru Park in Chester.


St. Louis City had already clinched the top seed in the Western Conference, becoming the first expansion team to claim the top spot in league history. But City fell a point short of LAFC’s expansion record for points (57) after a 2-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders on Decision Day.

City's first-round opponent, Sporting Kansas City, became the first MLS team to make the playoffs after going winless in the first 10 games of the regular season.

"I don’t think there are many other teams in this league who could start a season like that and turn it around the way we have,” Kansas City captain Johnny Russell said. “Obviously, we don’t want to start the season like that but I think it just shows the character of every single person in this team that we’re able to turn that around.”

The West’s second seed, Seattle, will host No. 7 Dallas in the opening round. Third-seeded LAFC will host the No. 6 Vancouver Whitecaps, and fourth-seeded Houston will host Real Salt Lake.

The first match in the West will be Vancouver at LAFC on Saturday. The two teams also played to a 1-1 draw on Decision Day, which means they could potentially play each other four straight times if their first-round series goes to three games.


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