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Can the NWSL playoff format be improved? And is a predetermined final the right call?

© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Soccer made news this week when details of potential changes to its playoff format were leaked. The men’s top flight in the U.S. had a 17-year head start on the National Women’s Soccer League but has not used that time to settle on any sort of reliable playoff format. So, let’s preface with: MLS is not the one and only model to follow.

As the NWSL prepares to expand to 14 teams in 2024 — and presumably more than that before much longer — it is fair to question whether the single-table, single-elimination format is best for the long-term and if not, how the league can avoid the pitfalls of MLS and its constant tweaking. Furthermore, explosive attendances at all four of this year’s playoff matches may be eroding the notion that the NWSL is not mature enough to sell postseason matches on short notice.

To review, the NWSL started in 2013 by sending four teams (of eight) to the playoffs. The higher seeds hosted semifinals in a straight bracket format with the higher-seeded semifinal winner hosting the NWSL Championship. There have been two tweaks since.

Since 2015, the NWSL Championship has been decided at a pre-determined venue. And in 2021, two additional playoff teams were added, giving the top two finishers byes to the semifinals and leaving the next four to play an opening round.

Before exploring some possibilities for the NWSL’s playoff future, it is worth noting that an overwhelming majority of MLS fans are all-in on the league’s current, straight knockout format that mirrors NWSL, only with more teams. That MLS conference champions are 0-for-6 since the format was adopted (both are hosting semifinals this weekend) has not seemed to quash enthusiasm.

Here are four ideas on the future of the NWSL playoffs.

Keep it the same, just add teams as necessary

There have actually been few complaints about the NWSL playoff format, which is saying something for this league. Personally, I am a believer in less is more in terms of how many teams qualify and thus was not enamored when six of 10 made it through in 2021. But with the league now at 12 teams, the six qualifiers represented half the league. I still don’t like it, but it is also in line with the far reaches of the American sports standard. Keeping the format, with the door open to adding two more qualifiers once the league admits its 16th team, could be a sound plan.

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