The MLS Cup playoffs are underway without the league’s biggest star, but with a brand-new expanded — and controversial — format.
This year, 18 teams qualified for the postseason, including four wild cards that played in single-elimination games. Now, eight first-round matchups are being played over a three-game series before the remainder of the tournament features knockout-style matches.
Last year, 14 teams made the playoffs, which consisted of only single-elimination games.
But after MLS broke attendance records this season on the back of Lionel Messi’s arrival to the league, its postseason format is coming under scrutiny from players and fans alike — a setback amid otherwise overwhelmingly positive momentum.
LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau questioned the need for lengthy series in soccer. “Home-away games, I totally understand it. We’ve seen it for years,” he said. “But to start to add on and add on and add on, does that really translate to our sport? I don’t know.”
Both LAFC and the Philadelphia Union had thousands of empty seats during their opening first-round matches, per the Los Angeles Times.
Luciano Acosta, captain of FC Cincinnati, which led the MLS season in points, thinks the format doesn’t reward regular-season play enough. “It doesn’t give the biggest advantage to the team that won the Supporters’ Shield, but these are the rules,” Acosta said.
The expanded first round does give Apple, which is paying $250 million a year for exclusive global broadcast rights, more game inventory. However, some critics have wondered if that actually dilutes the product with less exciting play on the pitch.
First-round matches will continue until Nov. 12 if necessary, while the conference semifinals will begin on Nov. 25 after an international break.