By, Jimmy @NN_Gooner
How It All Works:
European football may still be in the early stages of the 2016-17 season, but here in North America, we are gearing up for an exciting end to the Major League Soccer season and the beginning of the play-offs that will ultimately determine who is the 2016 MLS Cup Champion. With only one week of regular season matches remaining, we are starting to get a solid idea of what clubs we can expect to see competing for MLS’s highest honor. And while we here in the States (and parts of Canada) are all too used to the playoff structure utilized in a multitude of sports this side of the pond, there is no denying this format can be completely foreign to football fans who find themselves in different parts of the world.
The MLS play-offs combine the concepts of a league season and a cup competition into one entity to determine which club is deserving of the coveted silverware. While the league does have an award for the club that accumulates the most amount of points over the season (known as the Supporter’s Shield), it is held in lesser esteem than the prize that awaits the play-off champions. So how exactly is it determined who gets to play in the knockout portion that concludes the season? I’m glad you asked.
To begin, we must first acknowledge the presence of another facet unique to sports in North America: The existence of divisions within the same league. The twenty teams that comprise MLS are divided into East and West divisions, each comprised of ten teams. While each team plays every other team in the league at least once throughout the regular season (and multiple times against teams from the same division), the points accumulated are compared only to those accumulated by the other teams in the divisions. In layman’s terms: there are two tables, one for the East and one for the West.
At the end of the regular season, the top 6 teams from each division get to compete in the playoffs. This means that, if a club in 7th or 8th place in one division accumulates more points than the the 5th or 6th place team in the opposing division, they still miss out.
Now hold on to your hats, because here’s where things get very confusing.
The first round of the playoffs is comprised of four matches, two from each division. The importance of coming in first or second in a respective division is evident, as these clubs are awarded a first round BYE, or exemption from having to compete. They don’t have to worry about being eliminated in the first round and they get to rest their players for an extra week.
For the other eight teams, the match ups are determined by where they finish in the regular seasons standings. The teams that finish third host the team that finished sixth in their same division, while the team that finish fourth host the fifth place team in a single match, with the winners moving on to the next round.
Once the victors of the first round are determined, the second round match ups are also determined by where each team finished in the regular season standings. The first place team is pitted against the lowest-seeded surviving team in their division, while the second place team plays whoever is left. To put it simply, the only way the first place team doesn’t play the winner of the fourth place-fifth place match is if the sixth place team manages to advance past the first round. These second round match ups are played over two legs with the team with the highest aggregate score advancing.
With the playoff pool now whittled down to just four remaining clubs, the two clubs from each division face off against one another in another two-legged matchup with the winner being determined by aggregate scoring. Easy ‘nuff, nothing new.
The two teams that have managed to survive each of the previous rounds then face off against one another in a one-off match at a pre-determined stadium. Whoever emerges after 90 minutes with the most goals (or, if necessary, penalty shoot-out goals) gets to hoist the most prized possession in all of North American Soccer!
So now that you know how the process works, it’s just a matter of determining which clubs get to test their mettle against one another and prove themselves the best in the MLS. Keep an eye out for Part II of this feature, where I’ll give a rundown of each of the teams in the playoffs, players to keep an eye on, and a preview of the first round match ups!