*This was originally posted October 30, 2021*
Your favourite team has finished decently in the season’s table. You can now go away happily waiting next year and wondering what players will be brought in to do this all over again.
Except this is Major League Soccer, and in North America, we love our playoffs. So think of it this way: the 34-game preseason is over. And yeah, the New England Revolution have won the Supporter’s Shield for topping that table, but that is not what we all came here for.
Now let’s get to winning something: the MLS Cup.
The Audi 2021 MLS Playoffs is less than a month away, and the Vancouver Whitecaps are deep in the fight for one of the coveted spots for the post-season. But nothing is guaranteed yet.
Fourteen teams make the playoffs, seven from both the Eastern and Western Conferences. This is a reduction in the number of teams from the previous year, which featured 10 teams from the East and 8 from the West.
Setting the Table
Position in the final table is, quite obviously, decided by the total number of accumulated points throughout the season. But ties are possible. Just look at our Western Conference table right now.
Both Real Salt Lake and Minnesota are tied on point for that final playoff spot.
Tiebreakers are decided by the following order:
1. The total number of wins in a season
2. The goal differential (GD)
3. Goals for (GF)
4. The fewer number of disciplinary points
5. The away goal differential
6. Away goals for
7. The home goal differential
8. Home goals for
9. A coin toss (if between two clubs) or the drawing of lots (if between three clubs)
For the category of disciplinary points, this is a numerical measure of all team fouls, yellow and red cards, and supplemental discipline throughout the season. Fouls are worth a point, yellow cards are three points, and red and second yellow cards are seven points. Any supplementary discipline for reviewing misconduct is worth eight points.
The first round has three matchups for either conference. Teams that finish higher in the season table play those that finished lower: No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5. The team in the top spot gets an automatic bye into the next round.
This round is also a single-match knockout. Teams with the higher position in the final table get home field advantage for the match.
Matches that are tied after 90 minutes have an additional two 15-minute periods to play. If that does not decide a winner, penalty kicks will.
This leads to the Conference Semifinals. The No. 1 seed is paired with the winner of the 4/5 match. The winners of the other two knockout matches play each other.
Again, these are single-match knockouts, played at the stadium of the higher-finishing regular season team. Additional time and penalty kicks are used as necessary.
The final matches of the individual conference bracket are the Conference Finals for East and West. Single-match knockout, home field advantage and additional time rules are all the same.
MLS went to this single-match format two years ago in an effort to have the playoffs begin and end between the October and November international breaks. Having home and away games for each round would have made it too long.
But COVID-19 has made this difficult to follow. Last year, the MLS Cup match was not played until Dec. 12, 2020. This year, the Conference Finals and the MLS Cup match will be in December again.
The MLS Cup
The final teams left standing play in the final match for the MLS Cup and bragging rights to being called the champions of the league.
Home field advantage applies here as well, but it is calculated differently. Rather than seed position in the table (which only applies within conferences), the team with the highest total points in the combined league table get to play in their stadium.
For example, last year, last year’s MLS Cup was played at Historic Crew Stadium, the home of the Columbus Crew, even though the Seattle Sounders finished with a higher seed. However, Columbus had more points.
Where the Whitecaps stand
The Whitecaps hold fifth in the Western Conference going into the final two matches: away to LAFC and home to the Sounders. Depending on results elsewhere, they can finish as high as fourth and as low as ninth. That is how crazy and tight this table is.
Earlier in the season, the ‘Caps beat LAFC 2-1 at BC Place. The Sounders were dominating against us in October as we lost 4-1.