Major League Soccer concluded its 34-game regular season schedule this past Sunday, meaning the chase for the MLS Cup is officially on. With the Knockout Round games right around the corner, let’s take a look at the playoff structure and this year’s playoff field.
MLS Playoff Structure
12 of the 23 teams, who currently make up the MLS, qualified for postseason play. The top two seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conferences receive byes through to the Conference Semifinal round. Seeds 3-6 in each conference will play a one-game elimination match in what is known as the Knockout Round. The higher-seeded team in each case will play at home for that one-game playoff.
After the four Knockout Round games are played, the Conference Semifinals and Finals are decided in a home-and-home format, with aggregate scoring. This means that whichever team scores more goals over the course of the two games (legs) will advance. If there is a tie in goals scored, the team with the most away goals will advance.
The playoffs culminate with the MLS Cup Final match between the two conference winners. The conference representative that had the higher points total in the regular season hosts the championship game.
Eastern Conference Playoff Outlook
The six teams to qualify for the postseason in the Eastern Conference:
- New York Red Bulls: 22-5-7 (71 pts.)
- Atlanta United: 21-6-7 (69 pts.)
- New York City FC: 16-8-10 (56 pts.)
- C. United: 14-9-11 (51 pts.)
- Columbus Crew: 14-9-11 (51 pts.)
- Philadelphia Union: 15-5-14 (50 pts.)
The Knockout Round will see the Union take on NYCFC and the Crew battle D.C. United. New York City will have a distinct advantage playing in their home confines of Yankee Stadium. Not only will the crowd be in full throat, but NYCFC has a distinct uptick in offensive performance when playing at home. It will be a tall task in a brutal environment for the Union, but if they can slow the game down and make adjustments to throw New York City off their game, they certainly have a shot. A small one, but a shot.
Of all eight teams playing in the Knockout Round, only D.C. United had a better than .500 record over the final five games of the regular season. D.C. has been catalyzed by the mid-season addition of Wayne Rooney. In just 20 games played, Rooney has scored 12 goals and has also contributed seven assists. The margin of goals scored between D.C. and the Crew is 17, so these teams will certainly be looking to play a different style of soccer match than the other Thursday night. The Crew finished tied for sixth in the MLS allowing just 45 goals on the year. This match will hinge upon whether or not the Columbus defense can slow down the D.C. attack.
Western Conference Playoff Outlook
The six teams to qualify for the postseason in the Western Conference:
- Sporting Kansas City: 18-8-8 (62 pts.)
- Seattle Sounders: 18-5-11 (59 pts.)
- Los Angeles FC: 16-9-9 (57 pts.)
- FC Dallas: 16-9-9 (57 pts.)
- Portland Timbers: 15-9-10 (54 pts.)
- Real Salt Lake: 14-7-13 (49 pts.)
The Knockout Round will see the Timbers square off with FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake take on LAFC. After holding down first place in the Western Conference for a good chunk of the summer, FC Dallas comes limping into the playoffs after going 1-1-3 over their final five matches. As a result, they lost out on a first round bye and are stuck playing a game Timbers team in the Knockout Round. Dallas has struggled offensively all season, so the defense will need to get right quick in order to stop Diego Valeri, Tomas Conechny and Co.
It has been a dream inaugural MLS campaign for the expansion club, Los Angeles FC. They finished second in the league in goals scored with 68. While this might be LAFC’s maiden voyage into the postseason, there is a good amount of MLS Cup Playoffs experience on the team, including two former MLS Cup winners in Steven Beitashour and Benny Feilhaber, as well as manager Bob Bradley. Real Salt Lake will have to buck their season average of allowing 2 goals per road game to the curb against the high-powered LAFC offense.
Knockout Round Game Schedule
The Knockout Round kicks off Wednesday night. The Union and New York City FC will square off at 7:00 on FS1, and the Timbers will face FC Dallas at 9:30 on ESPN+. The other two games will be played Thursday, as the Crew battle D.C. United at 8:00 on FS1 and Real Salt Lake takes on LAFC at 10:30 on ESPN2. All times are Eastern (ET).