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Major League Soccer: How the playoff system works

21 Aug 2019, 20:47 IST

2018 MLS Cup - Portland Timbers v Atlanta United
2018 MLS Cup - Portland Timbers v Atlanta United

As the Major League Soccer season approaches its playoff stage, a new format has been adopted for the 2019 edition of the tournament.

As per the new rules, 14 teams compete in the 34 game league season and seven highest-placed teams from the Eastern and the Western Conference make it through to the play-off stages.

Since the group stages precede the knockout stages, the leader at the end of the 34 game league is awarded the Supporters Shield and automatic qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League.

Unlike most football leagues across Europe, the leaders at the end of the league season are not crowned champions but are in-turn given direct qualification to the semi-final stages of the MLS Cup.

The first-placed teams from each of the conferences compete in the semi-final stages directly and the remaining six teams take part in the first round of the playoffs.

The playoff games are single-legged ties hosted by the higher seeded team in all-round, as opposed to the previous format.

Earlier, the MLS playoffs were two-legged affairs and standard rules that apply to any such tie were applicable. The lower seeded team usually hosted the first-leg and the higher seeded tie, the second.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, currently plying his trade for LA Galaxy, criticized the new format earlier this year, going on to say that the competitive edge has been reduced owing to the change of rules.

“I think the system is s***. That’s the way it is because you talk about mentality. For me, mentality is every day. The way you train is the way you play the game. The results in every game are important. But here, you come in seventh place, you make playoffs, you win. So how do you create that mentality to be on your toes 24 hours? It’s very difficult.”

If the score was tied at the end of 180 minutes, the away goals rule would come under consideration and if the teams are still tied, extra-time is forced in order to decide the tie.

If the two teams are tied after extra time, penalty kicks will determine who advances to the next round.

It must be noted that the away goals rule is only applicable to normal time, meaning if the teams are still tied after extra time, only penalties can decide the tie.

In accordance with the new format, all playoff ties are solitary encounters with the winner of the fourth and fifth place match advancing to face the conference leader. The winners of the conference semifinals advance to the conference finals.

Atlanta United were crowned champions of the MLS Cup last season and with high profile players like Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Cristian Pavon all set to feature this year, the competition promises to be an enticing prospect.

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