Guide to the 2023 MLS playoffs: Revolution preview, new format, players to watch, and more

New England Revolution

The fifth-seeded Revolution will head to Philadelphia with perhaps a bit of a mental edge: The Revolution beat the Union in the final game of the season Saturday, 2-1, to set up this first-round playoff matchup.

LAFC won last year's MLS Cup.
LAFC won last year’s MLS Cup in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Having missed out on the MLS Cup playoffs in a disappointing 2022, the New England Revolution will be back in the postseason after clinching a playoff berth on Sept. 23.

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The playoffs have a new format this year, with 18 teams qualifying — nine from each conference — an uptick from 14 in recent seasons, with a new wild-card round determining the final participants in the single-elimination bracket.

Here’s what you need to know.

The new format

This season, 18 teams will reach the postseason, with 14 (the top seven from each conference) getting a bye into the round of 16. The No. 8 and No. 9 seeds from each conference will square off for the final spot to round out the 16-team single-elimination bracket.

Another new wrinkle this season comes in the round of 16 — which MLS is calling “Round One” — where series will be played as a best-of-three instead of the one-match showdowns typical of the MLS postseason. The higher seed will host the first match, the lower seed hosts the second, and the higher seed hosts the decisive third contest if necessary.

The conference semifinals, conference finals, and MLS Cup final will all be a single match.

What’s the outlook for the Revolution?

The Revolution are back in the playoffs after a disappointing 2022 and despite a chaotic 2023 that featured multiple coaching changes set off by the lengthy and mysterious investigation (and eventual resignation) of Bruce Arena.

New England has struggled since interim coach Richie Williams was ousted in favor of a second interim coach, Clint Peay, who has lost four of his seven games in charge with just two wins and one draw. The Revolution have struggled since the departure of star goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic to Premier League club Chelsea — New England has kept just one clean sheet since his departure on Aug. 26, allowing multiple goals in six of the last 10 matches.

The fifth-seeded Revolution will head to Philadelphia with perhaps a bit of a mental edge: The Revolution beat the Union in the final game of the season Saturday, 2-1, to set up this first-round playoff matchup. That win split the season series, as New England took a 3-0 drubbing in Philadelphia in May, the second-heaviest defeat of the season for the Revolution.

The Union are led at one end by Jamaican goalkeeper Andre Blake, one of the league’s best between the sticks, and at the other by Argentine striker Julian Carranza, who has 14 goals in 31 games this season.

With the first and third games of the series to be held in Philadelphia, the Revolution will have to steal one on the road, which history says will be a tough task. The Revolution haven’t won — or even managed a draw — in Philadelphia since 2015.

Revolution vs. Union first-round schedule

Game 1: Saturday, Oct. 28, 5 p.m. (Subaru Park, Philadelphia)

Game 2: Wednesday, Nov. 8, 8 p.m. (Gillette Stadium, Foxborough)

Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, Nov. 12, 3 p.m. (Subaru Park, Philadelphia)

MLS Cup playoff schedule

The playoffs will begin with the wild-card games on Wednesday and conclude with the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9, an extended schedule lengthened by an international break that will put the postseason on pause between Round One and the conference semifinals.

Here’s the rough outline of the schedule, with dates, times, and matchups for future rounds to be determined. You can also find the full first-round schedule here.

Wild Card round

Oct. 25

Eastern Conference:

No. 8 New York Red Bulls vs. No. 9 Charlotte FC (7:30 p.m.)

Western Conference:

No. 8 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 9 San Jose Earthquakes (9:30 p.m.)

Round one

Oct. 28-Nov. 12

Eastern Conference

No. 1 FC Cincinnati vs. wild-card winner

No. 2 Orlando City SC vs. No. 7 Nashville SC

No. 3 Columbus Crew vs. No. 6 Atlanta United

No. 4 Philadelphia Union vs. No. 5 New England Revolution

Western Conference

No. 1 St. Louis City SC vs. wild-card winner

No. 2 Seattle Sounders vs. No. 7 FC Dallas

No. 3 LAFC vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

No. 4 Houston Dynamo vs. No. 5 Real Salt Lake

Conference semifinals

Nov. 25-26

Conference finals

Dec. 2-3


Dec. 9

Who are the MLS Cup favorites?

There are plenty of surprises in the standings, with the top seeds held by some of the league’s less-established franchises. FC Cincinnati, under the stewardship of former Revolution standout Pat Noonan, stormed to the Supporters’ Shield in just its fourth season in the league after winning 12 consecutive home games to open the season.

Cincinnati was the laughingstock of the league for its first three years, finishing dead last in the East often by significant margins, making the club’s 2023 ascent dizzying. Despite losing star striker Brenner to Italian club Udinese in the spring, Noonan’s side never skipped a beat, riding 16 goals from MVP candidate Luciano Acosta to a comfortable top seed to put the league on notice ahead of the postseason.

Out west, St. Louis City has been the surprise of the season, locking up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference — admittedly the weaker of the two conferences — in its first season of play. Backstopped by Swiss goalkeeper Roman Bürki, long one of the top keepers in Europe with German club Borussia Dortmund, St. Louis posted an 11-3-2 home record (bested only by Cincinnati) to finish ahead of established contenders like Los Angeles FC and the Seattle Sounders.

Defending champion LAFC will always be a threat. Golden Boot winner Dénis Bouanga scored 20 goals in 31 games, and while captain Carlos Vela is a long way from his record-setting 34-goal season in 2019, Steve Cherundolo’s team has the talent to beat any team on its day despite an up-and-down regular season.

Other teams to watch include the Philadelphia Union, Orlando City SC, and Houston Dynamo.

What happened last year?

Everything that led to the MLS Cup final was fairly straightforward in 2022, with much of the bracket going chalk and the top seeds, LAFC and Philadelphia, advancing to the final after comfortable victories in their respective conference finals.

The championship match was as far from straightforward as could be.

There was already plenty of drama in normal time, when Jesús Murillo looked as if he may have won it for LAFC with an 83rd-minute header from a corner, but the screenwriters were far from finished. It took just two minutes for the Union to equalize from a set piece of their own, with Jack Elliott’s header giving Philadelphia new life and sending the game to extra time at 2-2.

The final went to a different dimension in the 110th minute, when an errant LAFC back pass left Union forward Cory Burke through on goal, leaving goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau no choice but to come off his line and take out Burke, suffering a serious leg injury — and being sent off with a red card — in the process.

The injury to Crépeau meant there was plenty of stoppage time to be played when the 120 minutes were up, and Elliott’s second goal of the day, this one in the 124th minute, looked all but certain to stun the home crowd and give Philadelphia its first title.

And yet, it wasn’t over; with LAFC down to 10 men almost 8 minutes into stoppage time, Welsh star Gareth Bale rose highest to head home the latest (and most dramatic) equalizer imaginable in the 128th minute and send the game to penalties, where Los Angeles prevailed to claim its first MLS Cup.

Players to watch in the MLS Cup playoffs

For much of this MLS season, all eyes have been on Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi, as one of the greatest players of all time — who is likely to claim his record eighth Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player at the end of October — landed stateside and immediately took American soccer by storm.

The Argentine legend seemingly couldn’t stop scoring, with 11 goals in 13 appearances for Inter Miami. The trouble is that much of that production came as Messi arrived at the start of the Leagues Cup, contested between teams from MLS and Liga MX as the domestic season came to a pause. Messi was sensational, bagging 10 goals in seven games as Inter Miami lifted the trophy.

By the time he debuted in MLS play on Aug. 26, Inter Miami had been winless in its last 11 games floundering well outside the playoff picture, and even the presence of Messi (also dealing with a hamstring issue) wasn’t enough to get Inter Miami into the postseason. That means stars like Messi, Spain’s Sergio Busquets, perhaps the best defensive midfielder of the last decade, and former MVP Josef Martinez won’t be taking part in the playoffs.

Here are some other stars to keep an eye on.

Luciano Acosta, FC Cincinnati: Acosta is the heavy frontrunner to claim MVP this season, as the driving force behind Cincinnati’s ascension to the top of the MLS. As dynamic as he is diminutive, the 5-foot-3 Acosta has been sensational, with 16 goals from attacking midfield (second behind Dénis Bouanga) and 13 assists (fifth in the league), but his impact goes far beyond the numbers. Acosta’s threat as a dribbler, passer, and finisher will have any team that draws Cincinnati in the playoffs concerned.

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville SC: Last year’s MVP looked on track to claim a second consecutive Golden Boot after a scorching start with seven goals in his first seven games, but the German star cooled off after that and has scored just twice in his last 12 appearances. Still, Mukhtar is one of the most electric attackers in the league, and makes Nashville — a Leagues Cup finalist against Inter Miami — a threat against anyone in one-off playoff matches.

Thiago Almada, Atlanta United: Messi’s international teammate has exploded into the most prolific playmaker in the MLS, with a league-best 17 assists to his name (plus 11 goals from midfield) in his second season in Atlanta. The 22-year-old is the creative hub of a team that has scored 64 goals in 33 games, one shy of Columbus for the league lead with one game to play.

Dénis Bouanga, LAFC: LAFC has been the most inconsistent of the league’s top teams, but Bouanga’s consistent goal scoring has been enough to land the defending champions a top-2 seed and could be enough for another run at the Cup.