There are, I think, two immutable rules of expanded sports playoffs; I can think of no exceptions.

  1. When any league announces expanded playoffs, there will be bellyaching. Too many teams make the playoffs! The regular season is worthless now!
  2. When the actual expanded playoffs roll around, they will draw record viewership.

This is basically true in every sport. It’s not that the complaints in rule number one are invalid; expanded playoffs do devalue the regular season, and from a competitive standpoint, having 20 of 30 teams (the NBA) or 18 of 29 (MLS) or whatever making some version of the playoffs is, on its face, silly.

The only problem with the complaints is that people always watch the playoffs. Playoffs are great to watch, and we all know it, and what’s more, broadcasters know it. Sometimes, it seems like leagues have to force TV rights-holders to carry regular-season games, which they do by promising playoff games at the end of the year.

The NBA and MLS have also figured out that they can game the system by creating EXTRA playoffs, in the form of the In-Season Tournament and the Leagues Cup. Right now there are plenty of deep thinkers in the offices of every league in the country that’s not the NFL, and they’re all scheming some version of “what if we built the WHOLE PLANE out of playoffs.”

With this in mind, I think it’s fair to bet on one thing, regarding the 2024 MLS setup: more playoffs. More, even, than this season’s odd format, which saw the introduction of a play-in game, as well as a best-of-three first round. So here is my wild guess at next year’s MLS format; we’ll see how close I get to the reality.

First, I think the league desperately wants to convert the playoffs into a “World Cup-style” playoff, meaning one that includes a group stage followed by a knockout tournament. They did this with the Leagues Cup, and I think they love the number of games it creates - and, given that the three most popular soccer competitions on Earth are the two World Cups and the UEFA Champions League, I suppose it makes a kind of sense.

Second, I think they realize that playoff groups that are bigger than four teams are unworkable.

Third, the addition of a certain diminutive Argentinian to the league has left an entire half of the league holding nothing but lottery tickets, in terms of potential games against Miami. I feel certain that everyone in the Western Conference - including the power centers in LA and Seattle - is in Don Garber’s ear about this.

Fourth, I think it’d be somewhat unsatisfying to have the playoff groups have zero relation to the regular-season standings. And so, given that I think they’ll want at least four groups in the group stage…

I think they’re going to bring back divisions.

I think it’s going to be four divisions, one of which will end up having eight teams. The top three from each division will make the playoffs; teams 7-10 in the conference standings (the divisions will still be in Western and Eastern conferences) will have an NBA-style play-in to get into the group stages.

The top three seeds in each group will get to host extra group-stage games - the top seed hosts all three, the #2 seed hosts two, and so on.

Teams will play the teams in their division home and away, and the other teams in the league once each, with division games removed as may be needed to ensure that every team plays every other team at least once a season.

Here’s what the divisions will look like, temporarily:

West: LAFC, LA Galaxy, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, Colorado, Real Salt Lake
Central: Minnesota, Kansas City, St. Louis, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Chicago
Northeast: Toronto, Montreal, New England, NYCFC, NYRB, Philadelphia, D.C.
Southeast: Nashville, Columbus, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Orlando

In 2025, San Diego joins the West, Colorado and Real Salt Lake move to the Central, and Chicago moves to the Northeast.

The top two from each playoff group make it to the quarterfinals, where group winners play group second-place teams, and on from there - similar to this season’s playoff setup.

And yes, this will devalue the regular season, and it will feel silly that 20 of the league’s 29 teams (and later, 20 of 30) will make the post-season.

But at the same time, I’ll bet we all watch.

My guess is that MLS will announce the format sometime in the new year, so I’m looking forward to see whether absolutely anything in this post ends up being right.