The New MLS Cup Playoff Format: Round One By The Numbers

Whether or not you supported Major League Soccer switching to a new playoff format in 2023 — and introducing a best-of-three series to the first round — none of us really knew entirely how it would look until actual games were played.

Three weeks after Decision Day, we finally reached the conclusion of Round One of the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs on Sunday evening with Columbus’ 4-2, Match 3 victory over Atlanta United. And now we have 19 games to measure against the previous, single-elimination format that was utilized for the first round in 2019 through 2022.

Below is a breakdown of how the formats compare in three key metrics: How many goals were scored, how higher seeds and home teams fared, and how competitive individual matches were.

This comparison does not factor in the two single-elimination Wild Card games played this season, nor does it include the two Eastern Conference play-in games from the 2020 season that were added in response to the pandemic-shortened regular season.

Let’s look at the numbers:

Goal Scoring

  • 2023: 2.84 gpg
  • 2019-2022: 2.88 gpg*

*Not including extra time

Contrary to some peoples’ fears, the new best-of-three format did not produce fewer goals and more defensive-minded play.

In fact, Round One saw more scoring than we saw in the last two seasons of MLS’ previous format, where teams only scored 29 total goals across 12 matches.

There is one major caveat. With exception of the Atlanta-Columbus series, the majority of that scoring came in Match 1.

After Match 1, goals per game dropped to 2.45 for the final 11 matches of Round One. Removing that Columbus-Atlanta series, there were only 15 goals scored in the remaining nine matches played between the other 14 playoff teams in Matches 2 and Match 3.

Chalk Versus Upsets

  • 2023: 58% home wins in normal time| 88% higher seeds advance
  • 2019-2022: 45% home wins in normal time | 77% higher seeds advance

So far, the best-of-three series do appear to have favored the higher seeds. Whether this is an improvement depends who you ask.

Some believe the previous win-or-go-home format was too random and decreased the importance of the regular season. Others would question why have a longer format that is even more likely to produce the same results as the regular league table than a shorter one.

Whatever your stance, there is one detail to add: Arguably the biggest flaw of the previous format was how much trouble No. 1 seeds in each conference experienced after receiving a first-round bye.

That data isn’t included here, because those teams didn’t play first-round games in the previous format. And it also is possibly explained by a lurking variable that will resurface in the next round in a slightly different form.

In 2019 through 2021, the top seed in each conference had at least 17 days between the end of the regular season and their first playoff game. This is because MLS had played Decision Day before an international break, and started the playoffs after.

In 2022, both No. 1 seeds won their first games after a shorter break, when Decision Day came immediately after an international window.

This year, the five teams who swept their Round One series are going to face a similar layoff as those 2020-2022 top seeds.

Late-Match Drama

  • 2023: 11% decided after 75’ | 47% decided by 0-1 goal
  • 2019-2022: 31% decided after 75’ | 65% decided by 0-1 goal*

*Not including extra time

This is where the new format compares least favorably. While Match 1s of these series had goals, they had very little in the way of drama. While the games were generally more competitive in Match 2 and 3, there weren’t many late twists and turns.

In some ways, these numbers stack up even worse for the 2023 format than they sound, because they don’t include any goals in extra time for the 2019-2022 format. Of the 11 first-round games that went beyond 90 minutes between 2019 and 2022, five were decided by extra time goals.

But there is a possibility future best-of-three series could be more competitive. Because there is some evidence lower-seeded teams overestimated their ability to earn results on their home patch in Match 2, and therefore may have started looking ahead after falling behind in Match 1. We even heard the New York Red Bulls’ John Tolkin admit something to this effect.

With five of eight teams that won Match 1 going on to sweep the series, we could see more urgency put on the opening game of the series in the future.

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