Major League Soccer fans are in for a ride when the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs get underway.
Once the dust settles on Decision Day – for 2021, that's Sunday, November 7 – 14 teams will embark on the playoff journey starting with a doubleheader on Saturday, November 20 and culminating in the MLS Cup Final three weeks later.
Here are five things to know about this year's playoff format and its single-elimination format.
RELATED: Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs schedule
The simple version: 14 teams total, with the top seven from both the Eastern and Western Conferences qualifying. With expansion side Austin FC as the league's 27th team, just over half the league (51.8% to be precise) could lift the Philip F. Anschutz trophy at season's end.
The field will primarily be determined by points earned (with three points for a win, one point for a draw) over the 34-match regular season. In the case of a tie in the standings, there's a series of tiebreakers to sort the field, which unfold in this order:
- Total number of wins per match
- Goal Differential (GD) per match (Goals For per match minus Goals Against per match)
- Goals For (GF) per match
- Fewest Disciplinary Points per match
- Away Goals Differential per Away match (Away Goals For per Away match minus Away Goals Against per Away match)
- Away Goals For per Away match
- Home Goals Differential per Home match (Home Goals For per Home match minus Home Goals Against per Home match)
- Home Goals For per Home match
- Coin Toss (tie of two clubs) or Drawing of Lots (tie of three or more clubs)
The disciplinary points factor in everything from fouls (worth a single point) to yellow cards (three points) and red cards or second yellow cards (seven points), all the way up eight points for any supplemental discipline issued by the league after reviewing misconduct during matches.
In the event that all 27 teams don't play the same number of matches, qualification for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will be determined by points earned on a per match basis, or points per game.
MLS clubs must play at least 30 games to qualify for the postseason unless a club is unable to reach 30 games due to one of the following factors:
- A club’s opponent is unable to play a match due to COVID-19 protocols.
- MLS, at its sole discretion, including for competitive reasons, has determined not to reschedule a match.
- The club has had matches postponed or canceled for other reasons.
Once the field is sorted, the No. 1 seeds in each conference get a bye, and the second through seven seeds commence play. The Round One matches feature these teams in single-elimination matches, with the better seed hosting:
- No. 2 vs. No. 7
- No. 3 vs. No. 6
- No. 4 vs. No. 5
Matches deadlocked after 90 minutes employ two 15-minute periods of extra time, and then, if necessary, penalty kicks.
In the Conference Semifinals, the No. 1 seed plays the 4/5 winner, while the 2/7 winner plays the 3/6 winner, with the higher seed hosting. Those matches are also single-elimination affairs, utilizing the same extra time and penalty kick deciders should teams be tied following regulation time.
The Conference Finals feature the Semifinal winners, again with the higher-seeded team hosting and the extra time provisions in place.
Heading into MLS Cup, here are the dates you want to circle on your calendar:
• Saturday, November 20; Sunday, November 21; and Tuesday, November 23 — when the six Round One matches will be played, with doubleheaders on each of those days.
• Thursday, November 25, Sunday, November 28; and Tuesday, November 30 — when the Conference Semifinals will be staged, with Sunday getting the doubleheader treatment.
• Saturday, December 4 and Sunday, December 5 — when the Conference Finals will be played.
That's right! MLS fans will be treated to playoff soccer as part of their holiday.
If you want to time your feast accordingly, the match is slated to kick off at 4:30 pm ET, airing on FOX, FOX Deportes, TSN, and TVA Sports.
And yes, for FOX viewers, the playoff match will follow the traditional Detroit Lions game that's become an annual tradition.
The all-decisive match of the 2021 season will be Saturday, Dec. 11, at 3 pm ET on ABC, UniMás, TUDN, TSN and TVA Sports.
As always, MLS Cup will feature whichever teams navigate the East and West sides of the bracket. The big showdown will be hosted by the team with the greater number of regular-season points (and using the tie-breaker list if both entrants finished the season with the same number of points).
In 2020, for example, Columbus were the No. 3 seed in the East and Seattle were the No. 2 seed in the West. But because Columbus earned more regular-season points than Seattle (or technically, per 2020's adjusted rules, more points per game), that MLS Cup was held at Historic Crew Stadium rather than Lumen Field.
The match will utilize the same extra-time and penalty kick mechanisms to settle regulation draws as the prior rounds.