On Wednesday, the Canadian Premier League announced a unique and innovative new playoff format which will revolutionize the way the league’s playoff champion is decided this upcoming season.
The new bracket introduces a fifth club, as well as further incentivizing regular season performance. The single knockout format features the same number of games as the 2022 playoffs while insuring the top four finishers all get a home match. For all matches that are tied after 90 minutes, we have two 15-minute halves of extra time followed by a penalty shootout if still tied.
“We will offer to our fans, our teams and our players a more exciting format where almost every team will have a chance and how you finish in the regular season has a tremendous impact on the playoffs,” Atlético Ottawa CEO Fernando López told CanPL.ca.
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The aim is both to add meaning to the regular season table, and reward clubs for their form over the gruelling 28-game season, while simultaneously injecting more intrigue and drama in the postseason. While, under past setups, the aim for clubs was largely to finish the year in the league’s top four positions and then find form at the right time, the new system adds meaning to each and every CPL match played in 2023.
“The purists will always like the league table, the North American fanbase will always like the excitement of playoffs,” said Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. “I think what the Canadian Premier League has done is been able to appease both and it’s so essential for the continued growth of the game in our country.”
Hailing from Spain, López is more accustomed to the single-table format, and he’s pleased to see the regular season champion — which was his Atlético Ottawa side in 2022 — more meaningfully recognized than ever before. Last year, the league introduced a monetary prize, matching that of the playoff winner, and will introduce a trophy for the regular season champion this year. Both the playoff winner and the regular season champions will also earn a place in the Concacaf Champions League going forward.
Having seen firsthand the excitement that comes with playoffs, López believes that rewarding both the top team in the regular season and playoffs in some ways doubles the excitement on offer during each campaign.
“I think the regular season is even more important [now],” said López. “To us personally, something different from what we are used to in Europe, but at the same time for our fans, having the chance to have access to two trophies and potentially to celebrate two times it is important and I think it is only benefiting the game, the show, the fans and the competition itself.”
Finishing top of the table last year afforded his Ottawa side a chance to host the second leg of the semifinal, and ultimately the final as well. Given that Ottawa had broken a record for most points picked up on the road by a side in CPL history, López said he didn’t fully understand how important home-field advantage is in the playoffs until he experienced it. The top seed in 2023 will have an opportunity to play the entirety of the playoffs on home soil.
“Even if last year we were a better team away, it is a different competition,” said López. “Once you enter into the playoffs you change your mindset and it’s like you enter into a different competitive model. Playing with the [home] field factor I think is huge. I think we were able to see almost 8,000 people here at TD Place in the semifinals and 15,000 people in the final, which is amazing. You really played with the 12th player which really makes a difference. I think it is an extra motivation to finish first.”
An added benefit, he says, is the fact that the winner of the matchup between first and second advances directly to the final, which affords that team a two-week break. After a long season, that could be a critical time to rest and recuperate as well as to rehab players who may have picked up injuries.
At the other end of the bracket is the wildcard matchup, adding the fifth-place team into the playoffs for the first time in league history. While that entrant will be hard-pressed to reach the final, seeing as they would need to win three straight matches on the road in short order to do so, the possibility is exciting nonetheless.
“You look at York and Valour that had really good runs at the end of the season [last year], these guys could come in as late entries into the playoffs and actually they could be the form team that creates this Cinderella story,” said Wheeldon Jr.
The five spots will also give teams something to play for much deeper into the season. This will be especially helpful for clubs who are still establishing themselves through the first months of the season. Expansion side Vancouver FC comes immediately to mind, but so do teams like Halifax and Valour who underwent significant changes to their core this offseason.
“We’re coming in with an entirely new squad that we don’t know entirely how they gel, when they gel,” said Vancouver FC president Rob Friend. “So having that wildcard is critical, knowing that it’s going to be a long season with a lot of ups and downs, and most likely a lot of inconsistency. So certainly great for the expansion team.”
With the revealing of the new format, López acknowledges that it is the fifth different playoff format the league has tried in its five years of existence — including the Island Games as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Being a new league, however, has afforded the CPL an opportunity to adapt from year to year until the best version becomes apparent.
“For those who might think that we have changed the format again, I think this is only speaking about the league and how we want it to thrive, how we want it to improve, how we want it to be creative and innovative and get closer to our fans,” said López. “Bringing more entertaining football.”
The new-look 2023 Canadian Premier League playoffs are set to kick off on Wednesday, Oct. 11. The 2023 final will be played on the weekend of Oct. 28-29, and with the new format, the road to get there will be more intriguing than ever before.