Landon Donovan celebrates 2001 MLS Cup

Audi MLS Cup Playoffs: How the format has evolved since 1996

The Audi MLS Cup Playoffs have evolved considerably over the years to the single-elimination format that was instated ahead of the 2019 campaign. That comes in stark contrast to the league's early existence, when far fewer teams led to best-of-three series until the one-off MLS Cup.

Remember those days? If not, here's a breakdown of the various formats throughout MLS history and the changes that have taken place.

1996-1999

  • Top four teams per conference qualify (eight total)
  • Conference Semifinals: Best-of-three series; draws decided via 35-yard shootouts
  • Conference Finals: Best-of-three series; draws decided via 35-yard shootouts
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2000-2001

  • Three division winners, plus next five teams with the best records qualify (eight total)
  • Conference Quarterfinals: Best-of-three series; five points to win; draws could stand after 10-minute, sudden-death overtime period
  • Conference Semifinals: Best-of-three series; five points to win; draws could stand after 10-minute, sudden-death overtime period
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2002

  • Top eight teams qualify regardless of conference (eight total)
  • Conference Semifinals: Best-of-three series; five points to win; draws could stand after 10-minute, sudden-death overtime period
  • Conference Finals: Best-of-three series; five points to win; draws could stand after 10-minute, sudden-death overtime period
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2003-2006

  • Top four teams per conference qualify (eight total)
  • Conference Semifinals: Two-legged series decided by aggregate goals
  • Conference Finals: Single-elimination
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2007-10

  • Top two teams per conference, plus next four teams with most points regardless of conference qualify (eight total)
  • Conference Semifinals: Two-legged series decided by aggregate goals
  • Conference Finals: Single-elimination
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2011

  • Top three clubs in each conference automatically qualify
  • Wild-card entrants, seeded No. 7 through No. 10, determined by their overall position in the league table
  • Play-ins for wild-card teams are single-elimination matches, with higher seed playing at home
  • Conference Semifinals: Two-legged series decided by aggregate goals 
  • Conference Championships: Single-elimination
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2012-2014

  • Top five teams in each conference qualify (10 total)
  • No. 4 seed hosted No. 5 seed in a single match to advance to conference semifinals
  • Conference semifinals: Two-legged series decided by aggregate goals
  • Conference finals: Two-legged series decided by aggregate goals
  • MLS Cup: One-game final
  • In 2014: Away goals tiebreaker implemented, but did not apply in extra time

2015-2018

  • Top six teams from each conference qualify 
  • Single-elimination Knockout Round: No. 3 seed hosts No. 6 seed, No. 4 seed hosts No. 5 seed
  • Conference Semifinals: Teams are reseeded for two-legged series decided by aggregate goals
  • Conference Finals: Two-legged series decided by aggregate goals
  • MLS Cup: One-game final

2019-present

  • Top seven teams from each conference qualify 
  • Top team in each conference gets a bye, no reseeding for matches
  • All matches single-elimination throughout
Series: