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What are Major League Soccer’s expansion plans for the play-off structure in 2023?

The MLS regular season will be expanded in 2023 which will have a direct effect on the play-off format.

Oct 20, 2022; Los Angeles, California, US; Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Samuel Grandsir (11) reacts after scoring during the first half of the MLS Cup Playoff semifinal against the Los Angeles FC at Banc Of California Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. VasquezUSA TODAY Sports

More changes lie ahead in MLS. The tournament had undergone numerous makeovers and format changes during the past 25 years and big changes are on the way for next season - including the launch of the new Leagues Cup, which will feature every MLS and Liga MX club and will run from 21 July 21 to 19 August. There have also been suggestions that the MLS All-Star Game, which usually takes place around the same time, might be scrapped or at least modified in some way.

St. Louis CITY on board

MLS will also continue its expansion by welcoming a newcomer to the competition. St. Louis CITY SC are set to join in 2023, becoming the league’s 29th franchise. Founded in 2019, the Missouri-based outfit have spent the past few months preparing for their entry and continue building their side, bringing in players from Europe including João Klauss, Eduard Löwen, Isak Jensen, Roman Bürki and Joakim Nilsson. They will be hoping to emulate the success of this season’s expansion team, Charlotte FC, who enjoyed an impressive debut season, finishing in ninth in the Eastern Conference and only narrowly missing out on the playoffs.

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In total, 28 teams took part in the 2022 MLS regular season with the top seven sides in each Conference advancing to the playoffs. With the inclusion of St. Louis CITY SC, the regular season will feature 29 teams in 2023. Sacramento Republic were originally slated to join MLS in 2019 but that fell through when majority shareholder Ron Burkle withdrew his support for the franchise.

That means that in 2023, the MLS regular season will be unbalanced - as it was in 2021 and 2020. Both Conferences will need to organise their own regular season schedule, including cross-conference games, taking into account that there will be an extra team. The 2023 MLS regular season calendar will probably be announced in mid-December, possibly after the World Cup final.

MLS play-offs: group stage proposal

In the meantime, there has also been speculation that the current play-off format could be completely revamped. The plan is that once the league has been expanded to 30 teams, eight teams from each conference will enter the play-offs. In practice, that would effectively mean that more than half of the league (16 teams) would advance to the post-season. But instead of creating another preliminary round of eight instant knock-out ties, it has been proposed that the play-off teams are divided into four groups of four - a similar format to the Champions League group stage.

Each team would play the other three teams in its group once - presumably with the top seeds having the home advantage. The top two teams from each group would then advance to the quarter finals - a single-elimination knockout phase. A group stage format would increase the number of play-off games from 13 to 31 games. With the new Leagues Cup already set to take a chunk out of the regular season, any major amendments to the play-offs format will mean an overhaul of the fixtures calendar.