MLS Playoffs 101: Everything you need to know about the postseason

MLS Cup 2017

After a season of preparation, competition and week-to-week drama, 11 teams have gone home and 12 others are set to begin an Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs journey that culminates on Dec. 8 when the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy is hoisted in front of a backdrop of confetti and fireworks.

Perhaps you’ve been invested since 1996, or perhaps you’re a late arrival to the 2018 season. Either way, it’s time for a refresher course. Let’s start with the basics.

Who qualifies?

The six teams from each conference that finished the regular season with the most points qualify for the playoffs to bring the total field to 12 participants, a number unchanged since the current format began in 2015.

Here is what the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs field looks like in both conferences:


  1. New York Red Bulls
  2. Atlanta United FC
  3. New York City FC
  4. D.C. United
  5. Columbus Crew SC
  6. Philadelphia Union


  1. Sporting Kansas City
  2. Seattle Sounders
  3. Los Angeles FC
  4. FC Dallas
  5. Portland Timbers
  6. Real Salt Lake

How do I watch?

For the second straight year, all postseason matches will be shown live on national television on FS1, ESPN, ESPN2, UniMás, TSN and TVAS. The 2018 MLS Cup will air on Saturday, Dec. 8 on FOX, UniMás, TSN, and TVAS. In addition to the domestic broadcasts, playoff matches will be aired in more than 175 countries around the world. 

Knockout Rounds

Now that the top six teams in each conference have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, it’s all about seeding as each team’s path to the final takes shape.

The top two teams in each conference have qualified directly to the Conference Semifinal stage, receiving a week-long break that serves as a reward for regular-season performance.

Meanwhile, the other four teams in each conference are facing a quick turnaround for the Knockout Round, which pits the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds and the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in winner-take-all matches hosted by the higher seed. Away goals do not count as a tiebreaker in the Knockout Round, which will be contested on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Knockout Round pairings for 2018 are as follows:



Conference Semifinal re-seeding

After the Knockout Round matches, the surviving teams are re-seeded ahead of the Conference Semifinals based on regular-season performance.

The lowest remaining seed in each conference will play the No. 1 seed, while the No. 2 seed takes on the other team in the Conference Semifinal round between Nov. 4 and Nov. 11.

For example, if the No. 6 seed sprung an upset against the No. 3 seed and the No. 5 seed did the same against the No. 4 seed, the conference semifinals would pit the No. 1 seed against the No. 6 seed and the No. 2 seed against the No. 5 seed.

Conference Semifinals & Championships

Once the single-elimination Knockout Round matches narrow the field, the format switches to two-match, aggregate-goal series for the Conference Semifinals and Conference Championships, with the lower seed hosting the first leg and the higher seed hosting the second leg. The team with the most total goals over two legs advances.

If the teams score an equal number of goals over the course of both matches, the team with the most road goals in the series advances to the next round. If at the end of the 180 minutes the teams are tied on both total goals and away goals, the teams will play two 15-minute extra time periods in which away goals DO NOT count, followed by, if necessary, penalty kicks to determine a winner.

MLS Cup - December 8

After more than a month of winnowing the 12-team field, two will remain. It’s time to determine a champion on Saturday, December 8 on FOX, UniMás, TSN, and TVAS.

MLS Cup’s format – a winner-take-all match hosted by the team with the most regular-season points – should be familiar by now. Like the Knockout Round, away goals DO NOT count. Like the Knockout Round, extra time and, if necessary, penalty kicks will break any tie in regulation.

And once the winner’s decided, there’s only one thing left to do: celebrate. A trophy will be lifted, medals distributed, champagne bottles popped and, for good measure, a CONCACAF Champions League berth awarded to the winner.

A little more than nine months to the day after the season began, the curtain will close on 2018. Don’t fret, though, the offseason always keeps things interesting…