MLS Cup Playoffs: Schedule, format, odds, scores - Who are the favorites?

You can spell MLS Cup Playoffs without Messi, but will it read as well?

Major League Soccer enters its postseason with robust momentum but without the crown jewel of its 2023 season — the late season arrival of one Lionel Messi.

The game's greatest player drew eyeballs from around the world and sent light pink jerseys across the planet, as Messi-led Inter Miami won the Leagues Cup and went to the U.S. Open Cup Final but ultimately couldn't dig out of a massive table deficit and missed the playoffs by nine points.

The good news? There are 28 other teams in the league, 18 of which made the MLS Cup Playoffs, and an intriguing new format is putting the 2023 postseason on a proper pedestal.

Here, we'll layout that format as well as the schedule, while catching you up on a wild regular season that saw St. Louis City and FC Cincinnati seize top seeds in their conferences despite their collective seasons totaling five.

MLS Cup Playoffs schedule — Fixtures and results

Wild Card Round

New York Red Bulls 5-2 Charlotte FC

Sporting KC 0-0 (4-2 PKs) San Jose Earthquakes

Round One - Best of Three — Game One, Game Two, Game Three

*if necessary

FC Cincinnati (2) vs (0) New York Red Bulls — 3-0, 1-1 (8-7 pens)

Orlando City (1) vs (0) Nashville — 1-0, 11/7, 11/12*

Columbus Crew (1) vs Atlanta United (0) — 2-0, 11/7, 11/12*

Philadelphia Union (1) vs (0) New England Revolution — 3-1, 11/8, 11/12*

St. Louis City (0) vs (2) Sporting KC — 1-4, 1-2
Seattle Sounders (1) vs (1) FC Dallas — 2-0, 1-3, 11/10
LAFC (2) vs (0) Vancouver Whitecaps — 5-2, 1-0
Houston Dynamo (1) vs (0) Real Salt Lake — 2-1, 11/6, 11/11*

Who are the favorites in the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs?

Only two teams claimed more than 57 points, so let's start there: Supporters' Shield winners FC Cincinnati (69 points) and Orlando City (63 points) were very good home and away and will love the cushion that comes with finishing high in a weak Eastern Conference.

East dark horses have to count the teams that score at will, and Columbus (third seed, 67 goals) and Atlanta United (sixth, 66) are two of only three teams in MLS to top the 60 marker.

And don't sleep on the form teams, two of whom are well-read in the postseason. Philadelphia has lost just once since the end of August, while Western Conference No. 2 seed Seattle is unbeaten in its last nine.

Orlando and Columbus enter on long unbeaten runs, and Sporting KC, New York Red Bulls, and Charlotte all had to win a lot down the stretch just to get in... and did just that.

Who were the season’s stars?

You mean there were other players besides Lionel Messi? (Scurries for data).

Cincinnati's Luciano Acosta tied with World Cup winner Thiago Almada (Atlanta United) for most goal contributions with 27, just ahead of Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga (LAFC).

Almada was spectacular all season, the league's top playmaker in a tight race with Cristian Espinoza and Carles Gil, both of whom are in the playoffs.

Former Dortmund star Roman Burki has been a monster for St. Louis City between the posts as the expansion side has flourished behind a sturdy defense.

So about this new MLS Cup Playoffs format...

It feels absolutely bonkers but... might... just... work?

The eight and nine seeds from each conference meet at midweek to kickoff of the playoffs with one-off Wild Card scraps at the better seed, and that's the end of instant elimination games for a spell.

That's because the Round One features Best of 3 series, with the wild card winner playing the 1 seed, and 2v7, 3v6, 4v5. Each games goes 90 minutes and draws are broken by penalty shootouts. First one to claim two wins, goes to the next round.

The semifinals are one-legged and bring two 15-minutes extra time periods back into play before penalties. The same standard is there for the conference finals, and the MLS Cup Final.

So the logic goes that the eight best teams will be left after two rounds, and then it's on the teams at home — in a league with ridiculously advantageous home field records — to prove themselves over 90 or 120 minutes plus kicks.