MLS 101: MLS Cup Playoffs

Each week, will provide a look into the workings of MLS through segments called 'MLS 101.' First on the docket:  Playoffs.
This past weekend marked the end of the MLS 2010 regular season and saw the L.A. Galaxy capture the Supporters' Shield, Real Salt Lake roaring back against the Rapids, and Seattle's win streak come to an end against Houston. With the rough-and-tumble season finished, the eight qualified teams now look towards playoffs which kick off Thursday. Here is the path to the final in Toronto on November 21.
Eight teams – the top two teams in each of the two conferences plus the four teams with the next-most regular season points*, regardless of conference – qualify for the MLS playoffs. Things get even trickier when you look at seedings.
The eight teams are then divided into two, four-team brackets – an Eastern Conference bracket and a Western Conference bracket (see below). The top two teams in each conference are seeded No. 1 and No. 2 in their respective brackets. The remaining four teams are then seeded by regular season points, with a slant toward conference affiliation. For example, if more than four teams from one conference qualify, the team finishing lower than fourth in its conference will shift over to the other conference bracket. A team switching conference brackets will be seeded lower than all other teams in its new conference bracket.
Because of this unique quirk, a team from the Western Conference could win the Eastern Conference title, and vice-versa. In fact, this has happened in each of the last two seasons – Real Salt Lake won the Eastern Conference in 2009; the New York Red Bulls won the Western Conference in 2008.
To better understand how the seedings work, view the MLS regular season standings and the MLS playoff standings. * - In the MLS standings, three points are awarded for a win and one point is awarded for a draw.
(1W) Los Angeles Galaxy vs. (4W) Seattle Sounders
Oct. 31 at Seattle | Nov. 7 at Los Angeles
(2W) Real Salt Lake vs. (3W) FC Dallas
Oct. 30 at Dallas | Nov. 6 at Salt Lake City
(1E) New York Red Bulls vs. (6W) San Jose Earthquakes
Oct. 30 at San Jose | Nov. 4 at New York
(2E) Columbus Crew vs. (5W) Colorado Rapids
Oct. 28 at Colorado | Nov. 6 at Columbus
The first round--known as the Conference Semifinal--is contested in a home-and-away, aggregate-goal format with the lower seed hosting the first game. The team that scores the most goals in the series advances to the next round. If the series is tied after 180 minutes, a 30-minute extra-time period (divided into two, 15-minute periods) will be played, followed by penalty kicks if the teams are still even.
The winners advance to a one-game Conference Championship match, hosted by the team with the higher seed. If the game is tied after 90 minutes of play, a 30-minute extra time period (divided into two 15-minute periods) will be played, followed by penalty kicks if needed.
MLS CUP (Nov. 21)
The winners of the Eastern and Western Conference championship games square off in the final at a rotating neutral site that is decided before the season. This season’s MLS Cup will be held at Toronto’s BMO Field on Sunday, November 21, at 5:30 p.m. PT, and will be the first MLS Championship match played outside the United States. It will also be the first MLS playoff match contested in Canada.