How MLS works 2023: New playoff format, league rules, and expansion clubs in Major League Soccer

There are a handful of changes in Major League Soccer’s 2023 season as the 28th season in the league’s history progresses to the MLS Cup Finals on December 9th.

The league is made up of up to 29 clubs, including this year’s new expansion club St Louis City SC, and there is a new playoff format that now features a best-of-three round.

Last year’s champions LAFC are hoping to make waves in the regular season and playoffs after becoming the first team since Toronto FC to win both the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup in 2017. However, a significant roster change will complicate things, as will competition from other top teams like the Philadelphia Union, Austin FC, NYCFC, Atlanta United and rivals LA Galaxy.

The other big sticking point in 2023 is the start of the groundbreaking 10-year broadcast rights deal with Apple TV, which will see every single game streamable from anywhere in the world via the Apple TV MLS Season Pass.

Sporting News brings you a rundown of everything you need to know for the 2023 MLS campaign.

MORE: Best young players in MLS for 2023 season

How to see MLS in 2023

  • Events: February 25, 2023 to October 21, 2023 (regular season)
  • Streaming (Worldwide): Apple TV MLS Season Pass (all games)
  • USA TV (selected games): Fox, FS1, Fox Deportes (Spanish) are all available on fuboTV
  • Canada TV (selected games): TSN, RDS (French)

Apple TV is the new home of Major League Soccer, with all 2023 regular season and playoff games streamed on the platform via the MLS Season Pass.

It’s available to fans around the world with no local power outages or broadcast restrictions, no need to change channels, and no need to search local networks to find games. The games are all in one place for the next 10 years.

Fans don’t even need an Apple TV+ subscription to get the MLS Season Pass. These are two separate services, although the MLS Season Pass is available at a discount for Apple TV+ subscribers.

Any MLS fan simply needs to access or download the Apple TV app, which is available on most set-top devices (Roku, Fire TV, etc.), smart TVs, gaming consoles and on the web at com.

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Fans can sign up for a free Apple ID and then either watch select games for free each week or get the entire MLS season by subscribing to the Apple TV MLS Season Pass bundle.

MORE: How much does the Apple TV MLS Season Pass cost?

How MLS works

Major League Soccer consists of 29 clubs from the United States and Canada that play a 34-game regular season from February to October, with 18 of the 29 clubs (top nine in the Eastern and Western Conferences) making the playoffs at the end of the season . The new postseason format for 2023 is explained below.

In addition to league games, MLS clubs also participate in domestic competitions (US Open Cup for US-based clubs or Canadian Championship for Canadian teams), and the best teams also compete in a North American continental competition (CONCACAF Champions League).

This is what sets Major League Soccer apart from most leagues around the world Each team follows the same roster and budget rules. Each club ultimately makes their own decisions about how they build their squad and spend their money, but they must do so within the guidelines set by the league.

Each team’s owners come together to make joint league decisions, including specific details of competition structure and roster and budget rules. If they feel a change is warranted at any point in the league’s development, they can vote among themselves to implement it. These include the playoff format changes in 2023.

League rules include maximum salary budgets, which prevent clubs from paying players a certain amount of money, although there are exceptions such as in the case of ‘designated players’. Teams can pay up to three specific players a salary that exceeds the regular maximum. This is intended to give clubs the freedom to sign players who may demand a higher salary than budget rules allow, and help attract big-name global talent.

MLS teams may also use certain amounts of “allocation funds” (general or targeted allocation funds) to pay a player’s salary to fit within the club’s player budget. There are rules for how general grant funds and targeted grant funds can be used and how much of it teams have each season.

When it comes to squad building, there are various methods of signing local talent, national players, young national players or youth players. These are all designed so that there is a balanced competitive relationship and teams have an equal chance of winning players. The annual College Player Draft is one such example.

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Unlike many top-flight leagues around the world MLS has no promotion or relegation although there are minor division leagues in the US and Canada. As a closed league, the same MLS teams compete each year, regardless of their standings in the previous season’s standings. However, for the sake of competitive balance, teams that finish in the last places usually get the top picks in the various draft players the following year.

MORE FROM MLS: Every MLS club’s player roster | MLS Roster and Salary Rules | Contest Policies

MLS teams and expansion

Occasionally the MLS decides to open new spots in the league for brand new clubs or clubs from lower leagues to apply for membership. New clubs pay an expansion fee to join the league, with the newest club, St. Louis SC, shelling out $200m, while Charlotte FC subsequently pay a league-record $325m to join.

St. Louis SC was a little longer in coming before finally being promoted to the league in 2023 as the youngest club. They were placed in the Eastern Conference, bringing that conference table to 15 clubs, while the Western Conference boasts 14 teams.

Occasionally clubs from lower leagues are added as well, such as in 2020 when Nashville SC made the leap from the USL Championship.

Thanks to recent expansion, MLS is at an all-time high of 29 teams, with the league aiming to reach 30 teams, with bids from Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix being considered.

MORE: MLS expansion to 29 teams in 2023 and plans for further expansion

MLS Trophies: Supporters’ Shield & MLS Cup

Major League Soccer awards two major titles each seasonand while one is certainly more coveted than the other, both constitute prestigious silverware for clubs to add to the trophy cabinet.

The team that earns the most points throughout the regular season, regardless of conference, will finish as the regular season champion and receive the Supporters’ Shield. Last year’s regular season champion was LAFC.

While many believe this recognizes the best overall team over the course of a 34-game regular season, it is not considered the most coveted award and the Supporters’ Shield winner is not typically referred to as an MLS “champion”.

This title is reserved for the team that emerges from the MLS playoffs and wins the MLS Cup, which is the grand prize each season.

New MLS playoff format 2023

The MLS playoffs were revised this year, with the previous format being scrapped. This time around, nine teams from each conference will advance to the postseason, with seeded Nos. 1-7 earning a first-round pass while seeded Nos. 8 and 9 compete in a one-time wildcard match.

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Once the first round is settled with a total of 16 clubs (eight in each conference), the playoffs begin in earnest. In the past, teams played a single-elimination KO round to determine a champion. This year, the first round will be played as a best-of-three series without a draw, ie a winner must be determined in each of the maximum of three matches. The first team to achieve two wins advances.

From that point forward, the playoffs will continue in single-elimination format in the traditional style of Conference Semifinals, Conference Finals and MLS Cup Finals.

The last team standing at the end of the knockout stages wins the MLS Cup and is generally considered the MLS champion. Last year’s MLS Cup winner was LAFC, who also won the Supporters’ Shield. That feat — winning two Major League titles for both the regular season and the postseason — is actually pretty rare. In fact, last year marked only the eighth time since the league’s inception in 1996 that the MLS Cup champion has also been the winner of the Supporters’ Shield.

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MLS All Star Game

During the summer, Major League Soccer hosts an all-star game that has evolved over the league’s existence.

After playing in the East vs. West All-Star format for several years, the league began inviting other clubs from around the world to a summer test match against the MLS All-Star squad during the off-season. In 2021, this format was changed to instead see the MLS All-Stars take on the Liga MX All-Stars from Mexico.

This season, the game will be played in Washington, DC on July 19, but the format and opponents are yet to be determined.

Last season’s All-Star game was played in mid-August and featured an MLS All-Star team beating their Liga MX counterparts 2-1 behind the goals of Carlos Vela and Raul Ruidiaz.

What is the League Cup?

The Major League Soccer season is suspended mid-season for the 2023 Leagues Cup tournament, which will see all clubs from the MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX compete in a World Cup-like format.

The tournament runs from July 21 to August 19, 2023, with each match also streamed worldwide on Apple TV.

The tournament, which begins with a group stage (top two teams advance) and progresses to 77-game knockout rounds, has three CONCACAF Champions League spots up for grabs. The single-match knockout stages begin with 32 clubs after 15 teams are eliminated in the group stage.

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