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MLS Cup Playoffs Primer

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With the MLS playoffs set to kick off in a matter of hours, we’re here to answer your questions.

MLS: MLS Cup John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in club history, the Seattle Sounders enter into the MLS Cup Playoffs as returning champions, seeking to retain their crown. I've gotta say, that's pretty cool to write. But for those of you who are new to the league, to following MLS or the Sounders, you might be confused as to how this version of the playoffs work exactly. Well fear no more, for in this article we will break down any and all things MLS Cup related.

Welcome to the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoff Primer Questions and Answers Questionnaire Extraordinaire!

MLS Playoffs, what even are these things?

First and foremost, the actual playoffs are branded. When referring to the MLS Playoffs you must refer to it by its proper name: Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. If we are to grow the brand of MLS in the oversaturated American sports market, we need to ensure that Audi gets all its $20 worth.

But to answer the question, MLS has a 34-game season, where each team plays an imbalanced schedule to determine playoff qualification and positions. Don’t think of this as European soccer leagues, think of it more as other American sports leagues, most similar to the NFL. There are two conferences, the East and West, and the top six teams from those conferences qualify for the playoffs. From here, these 12 teams compete in a tournament to determine the champion for the whole season, winners of the MLS Cup. Seattle currently holds this distinction for winning in 2016.

How are the playoffs formatted?

This is where the structure mimics the NFL except for one crucial difference, which we’ll address shortly. First, each conference ranks their qualified teams’ positions by their standings at the end of season. The team with the most points is in 1st position, while the team with the fewest points that qualified is in the 6th position. The opening round, called The Knockout Round, is exactly like the NFL’s Divisional Round. The 3rd seed hosts the 6th seed while the 4th seed hosts the 5th seed. The winner moves on.

Meanwhile, the 1st and 2nd seeded teams do not have to play in the Knockout Round, instead they get a bye directly into the Conference Semifinals where the 1st seeded team will play the lowest seeded team to advance from the Knockout Round, while the 2nd seeded team plays the higher seeded advancing team.

Here’s where it deviates: Instead of a winner-moves-on-loser-goes-home scenario, these teams play two games against each other in Home & Away matchups, with the aggregate score from both games determining who advances.

As an example, Seed No. 1 plays Seed No. 6. The lower seed hosts the first game while the higher seed hosts the second game. Seed No. 1 will travel to Seed No. 6. At this game the result is a 2-1 victory for Seed No. 6. In the following matchup at Seed No. 1’s home field, the game is played to a resounding 3-0 victory for Seed No. 1. Over the course of both games, each team won, but the aggregate score matters. Seed No. 1 scored a total of 4 goals compared to Seed No. 6's 2 goals, therefore Seed No. 1 would move on.

This format is the same for the Conference Semifinals and the Conference Finals. After the Conference Finals, the winning team from the East will play the winning team from the West. This is the MLS Cup Final. It is one match. Winner wins the Cup. Loser gets nothing.

What happens if the aggregate score is tied after a Home & Away series?

If both teams are tied on aggregate score after their two matches, in order to determine a winner there are three steps:

1) Away Goals: the team who scored the most away goals during their two matches advances, but if the teams scored the same number of away goals we move to the second step.

2) Extra-time: two 15-minute periods will be played immediately following the conclusion of the 2nd match. The teams switch sides for each half and, new this year, each team will have a fourth substitution available in extra time, regardless of how many substitutes they used in regular time. The team who is leading after the 2nd of these 15-minute periods will advance, but if the aggregate scores are still tied after these 30 minutes, we move on top step three. To note, the Away Goals rule does not apply to goals scored in this extra time.

3) Penalty Kicks: once the two matches are played, plus the two extra-time periods, if there is not a team who leads in aggregate score, the game moves into the Penalty Kick phase. Each team will alternate attempting to score a penalty in a best-out-of-five shootout. The team who has the most after five attempts, wins. If it’s still tied after five attempts, the penalties move into sudden death. Each team will have one attempt at goal. This will continue until one team leads after a round.

So how do away goals work? They sound important.

This is “simple”: any goal scored on your opponent’s field is an away goal. In our earlier scenario, Seed No. 1 lost to Seed No. 6 1-2. They scored one away goal. If in the following game, Seed No. 1 won 1-0, they would advance. The aggregate scores would be 2-2 for both teams, but with the first tiebreaker being Away Goals, Seed No. 1 scored 1 away goal while Seed No. 6 scored 0.

Any changes from previous postseasons?

Yes! The International Football Association Board, the group that overseas the laws of the game, recently approved giving teams a fourth substitute when matches go into overtime. MLS has adopted this rule for the playoffs, meaning they’ll have one more sub than they used to have.

I heard Clint Dempsey is suspended for the first match. How do suspensions work in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs?

Suspensions work slightly differently in the playoffs than during the regular season. Red cards are the same: immediate ejection and suspended for the next match (if not more than that if the foul was deemed worthy of any additional suspensions); however Yellow card accumulation happens at a much more accelerated rate. In the regular season, once you accumulate 5 yellow cards, you're suspended for one match. In the Playoffs, that number of yellow cards is now 2. Which means that if a player accumulates two yellow cards in the playoffs, he is suspended for the following match with one caveat: a player cannot be suspended for the MLS Cup Final due to yellow card accumulation, only due to a red card.

If a player accumulates two yellow-cards in one match, then that's a red card and he's only suspended for the next match. However, if a player enters a match with one yellow card and then earns two more yellow cards (and a resultant red card), he's suspended for the next two matches.

Suspensions do not carry over to the next season, unless it's a red card.

Can the Sounders host the MLS Cup Final?

The host for the MLS Cup Final is determined by a team’s regular-season points total. Of the two teams, the team with the highest points total will host the final.

What this means for the Sounders is that they can only host one team in the East: New York Red Bulls. If any other team from the East advances to the finals, the Finals will be played at their home stadium.

Who made the playoffs this year?

Eastern Conference

1. Toronto FC

2. New York City FC

3. Chicago Fire

4. Atlanta United

5. Columbus Crew

6. New York Red Bulls

Western Conference

1. Portland Timbers

2. Seattle Sounders

3. Vancouver Whitecaps

4. Houston Dynamo

5. Sporting Kansas City

6. San Jose Earthquakes

How have the playoff teams been performing recently?

To answer this, let’s look at the most recent 10 games per team:

Eastern Conference

1. Toronto FC 7-2-1 +15 GD

2. New York City FC 3-2-5 +1 GD

3. Chicago Fire 4-4-2 +0 GD

4. Atlanta United 5-4-1 +18 GD

5. Columbus Crew 5-0-4 +9 GD

6. New York Red Bulls 2-2-6 +1 GD

Western Conference

1. Portland Timbers 6-3-1 +7 GD

2. Seattle Sounders 4-2-4 +7 GD

3. Vancouver Whitecaps 5-3-2 +0 GD

4. Houston Dynamo 3-3-4 +2 GD

5. Sporting Kansas City 3-4-3 +1 GD

6. San Jose Earthquakes 4-4-2 -9 GD

Do the Sounders have a good shot at repeating as MLS Cup Champions?

Nobody has repeated as MLS Cup Champions since lucky-to-not-have-been-relegated LA Galaxy did in the 2011 & 2012 versions of these playoffs. In fact, only three teams have ever repeated as Cup winners. If the Sounders advance to the finals, it’s likely they’ll play on the road, where an outright win would be less likely than if they hosted the final.

That doesn't mean it won't happen, as proven last year when they won the Cup in Toronto.

It should also be said that various odds-makers have pegged the Sounders as likely representatives from the Western Conference.

When do the Sounders play?

The Sounders’ home leg has been announced for Nov. 2, but the first leg has not yet been made official. However, we’re almost certain we know the date. Since we know MLS has carved out two dates for the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals and we know the Sounders are hosting their home leg on Nov. 2, we can safely assume the first leg will be on Oct. 29 at 5:30 p.m. In fact, ECS has already started selling tickets under that assumption.

The two-legs of the Conference Finals will take place on Tuesday Nov. 21 and Tuesday Nov. 28 or Thursday Nov. 30.

The MLS Cup Final is scheduled for Saturday Dec. 9.

What about the other teams, when do they play?

Tonight! At 5:30pm PST the Chicago Fire host the New York Red Bulls. Following that match, at 7:30pm PST the Vancouver Whitecaps will host the San Jose Earthquakes.

There are two more matches tomorrow, with Atlanta hosting Columbus and Houston hosting Sporting KC.

Keep your eyes open for the Gamethreads to be posted on this site.

We dont know who the Sounders will play?

The only things we know is that we won’t play Portland Timbers or San Jose Earthquakes in the next round. Portland is automatically in the Conference Semifinals and our only chance at playing them would be in the Conference Finals. Since San Jose is the lowest seed, their advancing would mean that they play against Portland.

If Vancouver Whitecaps advance, we would play them. Otherwise, we’d play the winner of the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City match.

Does a Sounder at Heart­-affiliated person need to be in the opening ceremony to ensure a win?

I won’t lie, it’ll certainly help. For the past few seasons, every match a Sounder at Heart contributor has participated in the opening ceremony, the Sounders have won. To note: there is something called the “Susie Rantz Effect.” She has participated in the opening ceremonies once per season in the past three seasons, after which the Sounders go on an incredible run. Since her appearance this season, the Sounders have gone undefeated at home, haven't allowed a goal at home, and have won their games by a combined 10-0.

Any other useful notes that I might not have asked yet?

The likelihood of Cascadia rematches is very high, so be prepared for a heavy dose of Vancouver and Portland, should Seattle advance. Toronto are the favorites in the East, so it’s possible we might get the third ever MLS Cup rematch.

The winner of the MLS Cup will be awarded a CONCACAF Champions League spot in the 2019 next tournament. They’ll have another opportunity to qualify for that tournament next season by winning either MLS Cup or the U.S. Open Cup. The Sounders have already qualified for the 2018 CCL by virtue of last year’s MLS Cup win. Yes, that’s a little confusing, but that’s what happens when you skip a year’s worth of the tournament as happened this year.