Soccer 101: MLS Playoffs

MLS Playoff Bracket
MLS Playoff Bracket (Knockout Round)

Installment two of the Soccer 101 series looks at the MLS Playoffs, set to kick off on Wednesday, October 24th. A look at qualification, format, and tiebreakers. 

As noted in the previous edition of Soccer 101, MLS is experiencing remarkable growth in the United States of America, and more eyes are on the beautiful game than ever before.

As the ratings continue to rise for Major League Soccer, more and more new fans are about to experience their first postseason. With the 2017 Audi MLS Playoffs right around the corner, we here at Free Kicks Report thought there was no better time than the present to bring you up to speed on all the need-to-know info with Soccer 101: MLS Playoffs.

How does a club qualify for the playoffs?

The MLS Playoffs are comprised of the top 6 clubs out of both the Eastern and Western conferences, so 12 clubs in total qualify. The clubs are then seeded from 1st through 6th in their respective conference’s 6 club bracket based on their standings at the end of the Regular Season.

If two teams are tied on points, the first tiebreaker is wins, not goal differential, as is the case in most of the world. This year we saw that at the top of the Western Conference, with Seattle Sounders finishing level on points with the Portland Timbers, but since the Timbers had one more victory during the regular season the top seed went to them.

The same applied in the dramatic Decision Day race for the final spot in the West. FC Dallas won, and finished level of points with San Jose. But the Earthquakes stoppage time goal kept them in 6th place and into the playoffs by virtue of the wins tiebreaker.

Knockout Round: Single-elimination match. Winners move on to the Conference Semifinals.

The first round of the MLS Playoffs is known as the Knockout Round. The top 2 clubs out of each conference are given a bye and advance automatically to the Conference Semifinals.

The knockout rounds are then played between the 3rd through 6th place clubs in their respective conference. The 3rd and 4th seed clubs are given the home-field advantage in the Knockout Rounds, hosting the 5th and 6th seed clubs.

The 3rd seed hosts the 6th seed, and the 4th seed hosts the 5th seed. Winner takes all in the Knockout Round, and if your club survives they advance to the Conference Semifinals.

Conference Semifinals: Two-match series. Club with higher aggregate-goals moves on to Conference Finals.

The second round of the MLS Playoffs is the Conference Semifinals where the 1st seed club will face the lowest seeded club moving on from the Knockout Round, and the 2nd seed club will face the highest seed from the knockout round. For example, if teams 4 and 6 advance from the previous round, then 6 will take on 1 and 4 would face 2.

(I promise, we’re finally done with the “seed” talk)

The clubs then play a two-match series, each club hosting one match. Wins and losses don’t move you on in this round, however. The club with most combined goals in both matches will move on to the Conference Finals. This is known as the “aggregate-system”. In case of a tie at the end of extra time in the second match, they move on to penalties.

Conference Finals: Two-match series. Club with higher aggregate-goals moves to MLS Cup.

The 2 winners from each Conference’s Semifinals will then move on to the Conference Finals. The Conference Finals are played with the same two-match aggregate goal system as the Semifinals.

The winner of this round is their respective Conference’s Champion and will move on to the MLS Cup match.

The MLS Cup:

This is the top of the mountain in Major League Soccer, the pinnacle of success, the crowning jewel, so on and so forth. Out of the 22 clubs that compete in MLS, only two will reach the MLS Cup match.

The MLS Cup Final is hosted by whichever of the two finalists had the higher point total during the regular season. Which will almost certainly be the Eastern Conference side, as the top 5 teams in the East ended the regular season with more points than the top teams in the West.

The Eastern Conference Champions will then clash with the Western Conference Champions in the biggest match of them all to determine who is the MLS Cup Champion. If the match ends in a draw, two fifteen-minute extra time periods are added to the end of the matc. If those also end in a draw (such as in the 2016 MLS Cup Championship), the winner will be decided by a penalty kick shootout.

Once the dust clears, the club left standing will then have the honor and privilege of hoisting Philip F. Anschutz Trophy and earning themselves the title of MLS Champion.


Of course, the MLS has a habit of changing up the way the Playoffs are played as they continue to evolve and grow, so by 2018, this may be completely outdated and irrelevant. And then there are all sorts of in-depth tie-breaking procedures that we won’t get into here.

Questions, Comments, Concerns?

Love the article? Want to tell me I’m awful? Have a question about that plethora of information I just threw at you? Feel free to drop a comment in the box below and I would be happy to chat with you!

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