Your Wednesday Kickoff: Finding joy in a new playoff format

Your Wednesday Kickoff: Finding joy in a new playoff format

Updated: 29 days, 14 hours, 11 minutes, 39 seconds ago

Major League Soccer announced the format and schedule for the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs and MLS Cup presented by Audi. Building on the popular single-elimination format, the 2023 MLS postseason will see the addition of a pair of single-elimination Audi MLS Cup Playoffs Wild Card matches ahead of an enhanced Round One, which now includes a Best-of-3 series. Take a look at the full format here.

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When I first heard there might be a new playoff format, I had stars and dreams in my head. I knew it was a long shot. But what if this was the moment? What if this was the moment the league was set to throw the playoffs out the window entirely? I say all that to you, the dear readers of The Daily Kickoff, the world’s first-ever soccer newsletter, because I have a confession: I am a playoff hater.

This is true in all sports for me. I long for the days when the World Series featured the team with the best record from both leagues and they played like 13 games and one team was liable at all times to throw the entire series because a mobster offered them the life-changing sum of $50. I’ve lost friends for hours at a time after heated arguments over the expansion of the College Football Playoff, even though I know in my heart Georgia is still set to win the next five titles either way.

I know what I like, and why I like it, and it’s because I hate your dreams. Yes, your dreams, charming mid-major team making a run to the Final Four as a 12 seed. I’m not here for Cinderella stories. I want extended, full-season superiority to be valued over the rag-tag group of misfits putting it together for three games at the end of the year. I’m not just a hater; I’m a monster.

So, no, I'm not crazy about the new playoff format... but I don’t like any playoff format. That doesn’t mean I’m going to mope about it. There’s joy to be found in this move. Let’s go on a journey, you and me, hand-in-hand, as we search for the things even haters like me can be excited about.

There will be no “Snokes”

Do you remember in those garbage Star Wars movies (not those, the other ones) where they built up “Supreme Leader Snoke” as the new big bad? This all-powerful, frightening entity hellbent on destroying the galaxy?

Do you also remember when he got randomly and instantly sliced in half before we even reached the halfway mark of what was supposed to be a trilogy? Ok, like, yeah, it was funny. People were surprised. But it also felt totally empty. All that build-up! Zero payoff! Bad movie!

I’ll be honest, that’s how I felt watching New England lose their first and only playoff game of 2021. This team that had just set a record for points in the regular season thanks to an MVP-winning performance from Carles Gil, historically excellent goalkeeping from Matt Turner and a supporting cast of dynamic players got sliced in half after 34 games of buildup.

That won’t happen with this new format. If the big bad goes down, it’s going to be because they got taken down by an eight or nine seed over the course of at least two games. The winner of the first round three-game series won’t feel like a fluke. This means that most of the time, we’re going to get a lot of higher seeds advancing to the quarterfinals. Yeah, we already did anyway because home field advantage is outsized in MLS, but now the higher seed can get a second chance to get the job done at home if they mess up the first one and at least redeem themselves on the road to force a game three. Basically, it feels like the higher seed's chances of advancement are even higher now.

This is a narrative improvement and a sneaky competitive improvement. Those of you that want your Cinderella run can still get it. Those of us that want no part of a nine-seed in the quarterfinal can at least concede that winning a play-in game plus a best-of-three against the first seed merits some appreciation. And, in the end, we’re more likely than before to end up with a quarterfinal made up of the four best teams in the regular season.

Remember how that happened last year? Remember how it was actually the best playoffs ever?

More soccer

I like soccer. You’re here, so I imagine you do too. Who are we to complain about more of it?

And, you know, there is some truth to the idea that the end of the year needed more soccer. As fun as the previous format was, it once again felt like 34 games of buildup for a resolution that was a little too sudden. You do all that regular season and then you play at most four more games and that’s it; it’s over.

With more games baked in, you have a little more meat on the playoff bone. It will take a little longer to get through, but once you get your teeth sunk in, a playoff run will actually feel like a run and not a broad jump across a finish line someone put too close to the start. There will be some momentum to it all in a way that’s probably been missing since the two-legged series went away.

Immediate penalties

I know, I know. Someday someone is going to find a more effective way to decide tournament soccer games (Goalie Wars? Elimination soccer?), but there’s no denying the drama of a penalty shootout. The play-in game and the first round series, if tied after 90 minutes, will all bypass often ineffective extra time periods in favor of going directly to penalty kicks in each game.

It’s going to be hair falling out, hive-inducing, fingernails chewed all the way off levels of stress-inducing for the teams involved. There’s going to be a series at some point where all three games go to penalties and everyone involved will need an IV bag once it's wrapped up.

If you’re going to do this whole playoff thing, at least make it entertaining, right? At the end day, ain’t anyone going to be bored by this. Not ever haters like me.