Major League Soccer’s 17th playoff season begins Wednesday with the Eastern Conference, one-game knockout contest. The West version falls on Thursday. Here’s how things work:
- The first round, the “knockout round” is a one-game elimination between the 4th- and 5th-place finishers. Part of the concept behind adding the additional post-season slot two seasons ago (taking the playoff field from 8 to 10) was providing incentive to avoid this very match. It’s not just the extra chance to fall out contention; it’s the compressed schedule this midweek match creates. It really does supply a disadvantage to the team that has to play twice this week.
- The conference semifinals are a home-and-away, two-leg set beginning Saturday. The series winner is determined by total score; think of each match as “halves” of one game.
- The lower seeds host opening legs; the higher seeds get the second contest, the “return” match in our game’s vernacular.
- If the teams are tied after two legs, two 15-minute extra time periods will determine the winner, followed by penalty kicks, if necessary. That means “advantage higher seed” in the event the teams are level after 180 minutes.
- There is no “away goals” rule. That means away goals do not count double as they do in some international competition.
- The home-and-away format applies for the conference semifinal and conference finals.
- When it’s down to two teams, the higher seed hosts MLS Cup 2012. This is the new wrinkle – and a wonderful one.
Here is the schedule: