Celebration 2018

Understanding the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs

Alright, so the Union are in the playoffs. What… exactly does that mean?

MLS Playoff format

There are 11 teams in the Eastern Conference and 12 teams in the Western Conference of MLS. Of those, the six in each conference with the most points make the playoffs. Everyone else watches from home like the rest of us and writes letters to Fox asking why the show Pitch wasn’t renewed (seriously, Fox… just one more season?).

The Knockout Round

The two teams that finish first and second in each conference get to slide on past the Knockout Round.

The three through six seeds face off in epic sporting combat: 3 v 6 and 4 v 5. These knockout round games are one-legged and are played at the home stadium of the higher seeded team; typically a huge advantage in MLS. If these knockout round games are tied at the end of 90 minutes, teams play two 15-minute extra time frames before penalties begin.

The lowest remaining seed in each conference after the knockout rounds faces off with the top seed in the conference. The highest remaining seed from the knockout round in each conference faces the 2-seed.

The Conference Semifinals

This round of the MLS Cup Playoffs is two-legged. The lower-seeded team hosts the first leg and the higher-seeded team hosts the second leg. The winner is determined by the aggregate score over the two games. If the score is tied, the team with more away goals is the winner.

If the two teams are tied on aggregate and have the same number of away goals, the second leg goes into two 15-minute extra time periods followed by penalty kicks.

The Conference Finals

Don’t even worry about the conference finals because everything is the same as the semifinals. If you have the semis figured out, you’ve got this down too!

The lower seed hosts the first leg, higher seed hosts the second leg, away goals rule, the whole jam. And at the end of it all somebody earns a place in the MLS Cup final.

MLS Cup Final, aka Where This Train Is Headed

The finalist with the most regular season points hosts the MLS Cup final. If both teams had the same number of points, the following tiebreakers are applied in order:

  1. Number of Wins

  2. Goal Differential

  3. Goals For

  4. Fewest Disciplinary Points (this gets crazy even by MLS standards so let’s hope we never get this far)

  5. Away Goals Differential

  6. Away Goals For

  7. Home Goals Differential

  8. Home Goals For

  9. Coin Flip (coin chosen by Phang… possibly)

The MLS Cup final is one-legged and proceeds to two 15-minute extra time periods and then penalties. At the end of that, the SuperDraft immediately begins (not literally, but it’s not that far away).


Are you sure you want to know about this? Okay, let’s get weird.

Yellow cards

At the end of the regular season, all your yellow cards disappear! Normally, collecting a certain number of cautions (e.g., 5) results in an automatic one-game suspension. This is why Jack Elliott was suspended two matches after his red card in Seattle. He got one game for his first yellow of that match (his 5th overall) and another for picking up a red card.

But once the playoffs hit, all those accumulated yellows drift back into the Coldplay song they came from.

However, two things to note:

  1. Red cards don’t disappear: If anyone on the Union sees red against NYCFC, or if anyone receives a two-match suspension from the disciplinary committee for something they do against Red Bulls, they will miss the Union’s opening playoff match.

  2. The yellow card leash is shorter.  

In the postseason, picking up two yellow cards — no matter when you do it — results in a one match suspension. The only exception here is the MLS Cup final. Just like the regular season, all yellow cards go POOF after the Conference Finals.

Now this is where that Jack Elliott example is important for the postseason. Elliott missed two games because a) his first yellow against Seattle was his fifth overall (one game suspension) and b) his second yellow against Seattle was, well, a second yellow in the same game. Automatic red card and one game suspension.

In the playoffs, if your first yellow in a game is your second overall in the postseason, you automatically miss the next game. If you then pick up a second yellow in the same game, you miss another match, so you end up with a two-game suspension.

Red cards

Everything is normal here. If you get a red card, no matter when you get it, you miss the next game. If that next game is the MLS Cup final… well, let’s just hope history doesn’t repeat itself when the Union meet Atlanta in the Eastern Conference final.

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