MLS Cup Playoffs 101: How the 2013 postseason works

Home-and-home, aggregate goals, tie breakers . . . Get up to speed on the postseason structure

MLS Cup, 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs

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(USA Today Sports Images)

The MLS Cup Playoffs format has undergone some changes over the years, but here’s what you need to know about the postseason heading into Portland’s Western Conference semifinal first leg against either Seattle Sounders or Colorado Rapids on Saturday (7:00pm PT, NBC Sports Network).

Who Qualifies: The top five teams in each conference (Eastern and Western) reach the postseason. The five Eastern Conference teams are seeded Nos. 1-5 based on points. If teams are tied on points, the first tiebreaker is overall wins. The same goes for the Western Conference. Here’s a look at who’s in the 2013 MLS Cup Playoffs from each conference.

WESTERN CONFERENCE                                   EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 Portland Timbers (57pts)                              No. 1 New York Red Bulls (59pts)
No. 2 Real Salt Lake (56pts)                                  No. 2 Sporting Kansas City (58pts)
No. 3 LA Galaxy (53pts)                                          No. 3 New England Revolution (51pts)
No. 4 Seattle Sounders (52pts)                             No. 4 Houston Dynamo (51pts)
No. 5 Colorado Rapids (51pts)                              No. 5 Montreal Impact (49pts)

How It Works: Because there are an odd number of teams from each conference, one team needs to be eliminated before the playoffs can progress to the conference semifinals – this is where the knockout round comes in. The No. 4 seed and No. 5 seed will play a one-game, winner advances match to decide who faces the No. 1 seed in each respective conference.

On Wednesday in the Western Conference, fourth-seeded Seattle Sounders FC play host to No. 5 Colorado in the knockout round to see which team with face Portland in the conference semifinals. There are no ties in the knockout round, which means the match will move into two, 15-minute overtime periods. Overtime is played in its entirety, there is no golden goal. If the match remains tied after overtime, penalty kicks will be used to decide the winner.

Fans can catch the Western Conference knockout game on Wednesday at 7:30pm PT on NBC Sports Network.

In the Eastern Conference, No. 4 seed Houston plays host to fifth-seeded Montreal at 5:30 p.m. (Pacific) on Thursday also on NBC Sports Network.

Conference Semifinals: Once the knockout rounds are done, the postseason quickly progresses to the conference semifinals, which pits the No. 1 team versus the winner of the knockout round and the No. 2 versus No. 3 seed in a two-game, aggregate goals series. The lower-seeded team hosts the first leg of the series, while the higher-seeded team plays at home in the second leg.

Aggregate Goals: Simply put, whichever team scores the most goals over the two-game series advances to the conference finals. Meaning, your team could lose 1-0 in the first game, but still advance with a two-goal win in the second leg. If teams are tied on aggregate in the second leg of the series, overtime will be played (two, 15-minute halves played in their entirety with no golden goal). If a winner is still not determined, penalty kicks will commence. Follow the handy sample box score for further clarification.

      Leg 1                Leg 2           Aggregate

Team A             1                      2                      3         
Team B             1                      1                      2

Conference Finals: The winners of each conference semifinal will meet in the conference finals to determine who advances to MLS Cup. The conference finals are also a two-game, aggregate goals series. Similar to the semifinals, the lower seed hosts the first leg, while the higher seed gets to play at home in the second leg.

MLS Cup: Unlike in years past, MLS Cup 2013 will not be played at a neutral venue. Of the two clubs that reach the league’s championship match, the team with the most regular-season points will host the final. For example, if the New York Red Bulls reach MLS Cup, they will host by virtue of winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield with the most regular-season points (59). Should the Timbers (57pts) reach MLS Cup, they could host the final if neither New York nor Sporting Kansas City (58pts) represent the Eastern Conference.