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A Proposal for the Future of the MLS Season and Playoffs


The Issue


With the World Cup coming to the United States, Canada, and Mexico in the summer of 2026, Major League Soccer should consider changing the structure of their season and playoffs. For MLS to better solidify its niche in the American sports landscape and better fit the global football scene it needs to better solidify its playing season and create a more permanent MLS Cup format. At the same time there has been a growing issue about the value of the regular season games, so finding a way to increase the value of those matches should be of importance to the league.


The current format of the MLS Cup is too long, disjointed and competes against too many other distractions that are vying for the public’s time and attention. Being played in the Fall, it finds itself in competition with the NFL and College football, along with the end of Major League Baseball, and the beginning of the NBA and NHL seasons. Add to that the international breaks, which interfere with game dates, drag out the tournament, disrupt the flow of games, and makes it nigh impossible for the league to create a playoff narrative. For Major League Soccer the MLS Cup is their chance to showcase the league, yet playing it in the Fall keeps the tournament from truly reaching its potential, not only with the casual soccer fan, but also MLS diehards.


The regular season format also suffers from its own issues. It is too long, with early games being devalued, plus it finds itself in conflict with international breaks and tournaments, which disrupt teams and the rhythm of the season. Playing in the summer will mean there will be overlap with the Copa América and then the World Cup. Going forward there will be conflicts with CONCACAF Gold Cup, future World Cups, and potentially other Copa América tournaments. Addressing this would be to the benefit of MLS.


The following is a plan for MLS to improve both its regular season and the MLS Cup.


Expansion


The first thing MLS would need to do to improve its season and playoffs is expand to 32 teams. MLS has used expansion fees to help keep the league stable and growing, so one more round of two teams is not far-fetched, and MLS has not been adverse to accepting the large expansion fees.


Placement of these two expansion teams would need to be carefully considered by the league. One team would need to be placed in the west with Phoenix and Las Vegas the most likely candidates, while Sacramento or San Francisco would be outside shots.


The other team would need to be in the east. This is a bit trickier. A team in the Northeast would be the best, with Detroit the likeliest candidate. Would love a Red Bulls move into New York City and an actual New Jersey team play in Red Bulls Arena, but New York real estate and politics makes this near impossible. Other options would be to look at cities in the south where there are many options, Jacksonville and Tampa in Florida, Memphis, New Orleans and San Antonio would all be options. If any of these were to be added, Charlotte would slide into a Northeastern (Atlantic) division.


It is important that there be 32 teams so that MLS could be broken into 4 divisions of 8 teams each. For this example I placed the two expansion teams in the Northeast and the West.


Hypothetical divisions could be:

South East (Sunbelt)

Atlanta United

Austin FC

Charlotte FC

FC Dallas

Houston Dynamo

Inter Miami CF

Nashville SC

Orlando City


North East (Atlantic)

D.C. United

CF Montreal

Motor City SC (Detroit)

New England Revolution

New York City FC

New York Red Bulls

Philadelphia Union

Toronto FC


Midwest (Mid America)

Chicago Fire

FC Cincinnati

Columbus Crew

Colorado Rapids

Minnesota United

Real Salt Lake

Sporting Kansas City

St. Louis CITY SC


West (Pacific)

LA Galaxy

Las Vegas or Phoenix

Los Angeles FC

Portland Timbers

San Diego SC

San Jose Earthquakes

Seattle Sounders FC

Vancouver Whitecaps


New Season Structure

The regular season for MLS would be divided into two seasons similar to but not the same as the Liga MX season set-up. Liga MX plays two seasons each sporting year, the Apertura (opening) and the Clausura (closing) seasons resulting in two champions per year, who then take part in a playoff. MLS would also play two distinct seasons, both of which would contribute to determining which teams play in the MLS Cup.


The Fall Division Play

The first MLS season would start in late August or early September, with all games played within the division. This means there would be 14 games played around the three international breaks. Unlike current MLS scheduling, the league would ensure every team is off during the international breaks, keeping parity between teams, and not penalizing those teams which have more international representatives on their roster. Based on the calendar year, there are 16 weeks in the Fall timeframe, so some adjustments to the beginning of the season, or the ending dates would need to be made when planning the season schedule. Wednesday night matches would also be utilized to ensure that the Fall season would be completed by the second or third weekend of December.


As teams would be only playing within their respective division, they would be playing home and away against teams from their region, with many matches against natural rivals. This would help improve the importance of these games, and hopefully boost attendance. It would also reduce travel time and costs, while hopefully reducing the stress on players.


At the end of the division play, the top team from each division would win spots in MLS Cup (to be played at a later time). In this format four teams would win silverware, which might make them lesser trophies compared to current MLS awards, but in time these trophies might actually gain value as the new format becomes more accepted and permanently ingrained in the American sports landscape. As each team would play a balanced table in their division, the worth of these trophies could be seen as equal to the current MLS Supporter’s Shield.


One area that would need to be considered is if the Division Champion teams would win births in the Concacaf Champions Cup? It would make winning the opening season more valuable, but there are logistical issues that would need to be addressed for this to happen.

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Winter Off-season

MLS would then take a winter break, where off-season work would be done, such as transfers. Certain current MLS Transactions such as the SuperDraft would need to be rescheduled.


The winter break would go through the rest of December, through the beginning of January. Preseason would start at the end of January, and the second season would begin at the end of February.


The Spring Cup Run

The second MLS season would see the divisions paired up. This pairing would rotate each year. This would mean that the Northeast would be paired up with the Southeast, and then the next year it would be paired up with the Midwest, and finally the West the year after that. This would allow for teams to play teams outside of their division once every three years. This may not be ideal, but the sheer size of MLS makes playing all MLS teams impossible. By having a rotation, it will make it easier for fans and the general public to understand who the team is playing in any given year, and when teams outside the division will play again. One additional effect would be that games played in the later rounds of US Open Cup, League’s Cup, and MLS Cup will be more unique as they will be against teams that are rarely seen, thus marketing could make them more special.


The Spring season will have each team play all the teams in the two combined divisions once, thus the Spring season will have 15 games. This will mean there will be one more match between rivals, and one game each against teams from the other division. By keeping this number low, the value of these games will be higher, and it will be a sprint to the MLS Cup.


With only one international break, the schedule would have a bit more flexibility. It might make sense to end the season so that the MLS Cup Group stage would begin prior to the June international break, or it could be that decision day happens just before the break and MLS Cup would start directly after.


MLS Cup

The Fall Season saw 4 of the 16 MLS Cup spots filled. Two of the remaining spots will be filled based on the results of the Spring Season, the winner of each combined division receiving an automatic bid. If the top team already has secured a Cup bid, the next highest team on the table without a Cup bid will earn a spot.


The remaining cup spots will be based on points total earned in both the fall and spring seasons, as will the seeding of the MLS Cup brackets. MLS Cup will be made up of the teams that won their respective season and those with the best point total from the combined season.


If a team won their Fall Division, and then the Combined Division Spring season, there is a good likelihood that team would be the top seed of the MLS Cup tournament. If two teams managed this feat, the team with the best point total would get the top spot and the Supporter’s Shield.

MLS Cup would start with a group stage, which features 4 groups of 4 teams. This would be played like the World Cup, with each team playing the other 3 teams. The top teams in each group would play all home games, the second highest would play two games at home, third highest would get one, and the lowest seed would play all games on the road. In this format there is a distinct advantage for being a top team, thus boosting the value of play in both the Fall and Spring Seasons.

Out of the group stage would be 8 teams. These 8 would play single elimination games, with the home team based on higher seeding in the group stage. The MLS Cup would most likely start in late May and run into June. One of the reasons I am in favor of this format, is that it is more relatable by the general public. They know World Cup, and understand its format. I believe Apple TV would like this format better, as it gives them a specific set of games that it will broadcast. By moving the MLS Cup to this time of year there would be fewer competitors for the public’s attention, and the weather would be better for outdoor sports events. The format also would allow for a smaller footprint on the calendar and be easier for the league to build a narrative around the Cup competition. The 2023 MLS Cup was the exact opposite as it took 22 days after the regular season ended to finalize the first round of the MLS playoffs.

Going with the group play, and moving the MLS Cup to late spring/early summer, there wouldn’t be any huge gaps in the schedule as there was this year’s MLS Cup.


The Summer

Once the MLS Cup was won, there would be a summer break. Again this would be a time for teams to make transactions, and changes to the team. The Super Draft and MLS Free Agency would need to be shifted to the summer, so more of the team building would be done during the summer.


Taking advantage of European Club tours would allow MLS Teams to play friendlies in the summer without inserting them into the middle of their season.


MLS NextPro could continue to be played during the summer, and teams could do more to promote those games and play them at their stadiums, to ensure their facilities are still being used throughout the summer. With it being lower division play, an expectation could be cheaper tickets, which could help ensure decent attendance. This would help promote young players coming up through the team’s pipeline and create a more visible pathway to pros.


Another point of concern would be the US Open Cup. There would need to be negotiations with US Soccer about how to integrate the US Open Cup into this new schedule. It might mean MLS teams do not join until later in the competition. It might also mean the US Open Cup is played more in the summer months. This could make it stand out more as it would be the primary competition during the summer.


League’s Cup

August would see the League’s Cup as the beginning of MLS Competition. The League’s Cup would basically be the same format as this first one, though would look for the group stage to be 4 team groups, so each team would be guaranteed 3 games. Those teams that are eliminated would go back into preseason mode, playing friendlies and preparing for the Fall Division. In this way, the League’s Cup is no longer interrupting the regular season, but is instead a launch pad for the new year.


How this Change Could be Implemented

The 2026 World Cup could offer the perfect opportunity for MLS to make this change. Expansion teams could be identified in 2024, and announced, with a launch scheduled for the 2026 season. This would give MLS the opportunity to create the four divisions of eight teams.


The Spring 2026 season would be the division play that going forward would be played in the Fall. For this season only, teams would only play their division games, with the top four teams from each division playing in the group stage of MLS Cup. MLS Cup would be played in late May early June as a lead up to the World Cup. It’s the perfect showcase for MLS to the general public. MLS would then make teams available to play warm up matches for visiting World Cup teams, which would again help raise the awareness of the league.

After the World Cup is completed, MLS and Liga MX would host the League’s Cup, again utilizing the exposure of the World’s Cup to help promote this still relatively new tournament.


The Fall of 2026 would see MLS start their new schedule with a repeat of the Division play. This would mean that MLS Teams would only play games against division rivals in 2026 outside of MLS and League’s Cup games, but this would be a small inconvenience for reorienting the MLS Calendar to a more sustainable schedule.


Conclusion

There are many issues that would need to be addressed to make this shift, as has been pointed out previously. Other issues such as player’s contracts, would also need to be addressed. The calendar would have to be examined to make sure everything fit while also giving players rest and recovery, but this setup would offer MLS a better opportunity to make its mark on the American sports landscape, as well as allowing it to fit better with the international soccer calendar. It would make the regular season matches worth more, and through this improve the quality of the play on the field.


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