CPL Playoff Format Explained: What you need to know about the 5-team bracket

The Canadian Premier League unveiled its new playoff format on Wednesday, with the 2023 season set to kick off in April.

This year, for the first time ever, the CPL will expand its postseason to include five teams, with a redesigned path to the Final that will put added emphasis on the regular season standings and give an advantage to the sides that have been most consistently strong throughout the year.

The new-look bracket is below, but a few key elements stand out. The top two teams will meet in a kind of semifinal match (hosted by the regular season champions), with the winner going directly to the CPL Final. However, all is not lost for the losing side, who enter the bottom half of the bracket and host a second semifinal against either the third-, fourth-, or fifth-placed team.

The five-team CPL playoff format.
The five-team CPL playoff format.

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As the bracket shows, the fourth-place team hosts a knockout match in a play-in round against fifth place, with the winner heading to the home of the third-place club. The winner of that, of course, will be awaited by the aforementioned first- or second-placed side in a match that will determine the second finalist.

Under this format, the league will see the exact same number of total playoff games (five) as it did in 2022, but each will have additional significance and higher stakes as a single-elimination match rather than part of a two-legged tie. Also identical to 2022: Each of the top four sides are guaranteed to host at least one playoff game – and this time, that home game will be a do-or-die encounter.

A champion will be crowned the weekend of October 28-29, but exactly what path that team takes en route to its triumph could differ. To help break it all down, here are a few key takeaways from the CPL’s new playoff bracket.

Emphasis on regular season seeding

Under this format, the order of finish for teams in the regular season takes far more importance than ever before. Each spot from first to fifth comes with particular advantages or disadvantages, which will encourage teams to jockey for position right down to the end of the season.

Whoever finishes first will, of course, be crowned regular season champion (and will get an automatic Concacaf Champions League spot). In the playoffs, they’re guaranteed two home games, and they’ll have two opportunities to get to the Final. Finishing second likewise gives a team two chances to make the Final, but they’ll have to start by playing in the house of the league’s top side.

Coming third would mean only needing to win two games to get to the Final – the first of which would be at home, against either the fourth- or fifth-place team who will have played just three days before.

The playoffs have expanded to allow a fifth team into the mix, but the Cinderella-type run they’d need to win the title means it’d be no fluke. The fifth-place club would need to win four straight knockout matches, all of them on the road, with less rest than most of the opponents they’d play.

So, playoff-bound clubs won’t be able to coast to the end of the season secure in their top-four position. Teams will be clawing for every available point to try and finish one spot higher, since it could now make all the difference.

Atlético Ottawa celebrate their 2022 regular season championship. (PHOTO: Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography/CPL)

5 distinct, high-stakes knockout matches

Unlike the previous format which saw teams play home-and-away ties in the semifinals, this system should ensure more drama in every single playoff match. When fans arrive at any of the five playoff games, they’ll know that both sides enter the contest 90 minutes away from either elimination or advancing.

That means that every single CPL playoff match in 2023 will be packed with drama and action, and each stadium will be abuzz with the atmosphere that accompanies a win-or-go-home fixture.

We’re also certain to see some new playoff matchups, with five games all featuring a different pair of teams. Certainly, we’ll see a couple classic meetings between sides that have playoff history — Forge and Cavalry again, perhaps? But new playoff rivalries may also begin this year with whatever new storylines unfold.

Potential for Cinderella run from 5th place?

While this format is deliberately designed to favour the sides finishing higher in the regular season standings (and rightfully so), it does open the door for an endearing Cinderella story from the fifth-place team.

The road from fifth place to the Final is far more difficult than it is for first place. A team would need to win three straight knockout clashes, all of them away from home, just to get to the championship match — where they’d play a very strong, well-rested team. Still, the slim potential is there for a team that catches fire at the right time.

Perhaps a side who made a splashy midseason addition that works wonders can’t quite get to the top of the table, but they could turn their season around in the late summer and find their way to a deep playoff run. Valour FC, for instance, finished fifth in 2022, but might their August and September form have given them a chance against fourth-place Pacific?

Or if York United, who thrived after Mo Babouli’s midseason arrival, could’ve snuck into the playoffs by passing Valour (who finished three points ahead), might Martin Nash and co. have seen a different ending?

The storylines will be compelling all year.

Cavalry and Forge players battle during the 2022 CPL semifinal. (Photo: CFC Media/Tony Lewis)

Rest advantages, especially for Final host

After a long 28-game campaign, no team will be entering the playoffs without their share of bumps and bruises from the journey. At that time of year, a few extra days of recovery can make all the difference, and allow a team to play a more high-energy style of football.

The way this bracket is set up, a couple of teams may find themselves with a rest advantage going into their playoff game. First, the wildcard match between fourth and fifth place is slated to be a midweek contest, which means a short turnaround from each team’s final regular season match on the weekend.

Then, the winner of that game will have to travel — again on short rest — to the home of the third-place side, where they’ll play an opponent that’s had a full week to recover and prepare.

On the other side of the bracket, whoever hosts the Final — that is, the winner of the semifinal contest between first and second place — will have a full two weeks to prepare. That means players can nurse any nagging injuries, coaches can fine-tune their tactics, and teams can ensure they step into the championship match as the best version of themselves.

Plus, the added benefit of two full weeks where a city knows it’ll host the CPL Final is the extra time for a host club to plan the event itself, ensuring the best possible atmosphere and experience for anybody in attendance.