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The 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs: an explainer

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Just about everything you need to know about the MLS postseason.

MLS: MLS Cup Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United and eleven other teams are set to kick off a five-and-a-half week journey to MLS Cup as the league’s playoffs begin with a knockout round this week. Who will be the last team standing? Will it be Supporters’ Shield winner Toronto FC? Can the Seattle Sounders make it two in a row and join DC United and the Houston Dynamo as the only back-to-back Cup winners in league history? Is a dark horse poised to make a run at it?

Before things get going, let’s break down the format itself. There are some twists and turns that MLS’s playoffs have that doesn’t exist in other professional sports leagues (the fact that MLS even has a playoff sets it apart from other domestic leagues in and of itself), so understanding those is key to the experience.

Wait, knockout rounds? What are those?

The MLS Cup Playoffs begin with a one-game series to determine who advances to the conference semifinals, with the three seed hosting the six seed and the four seed hosting the five seed. Of course, since these games require winners, there are no draws, so any game that remains level after 90 minutes go to two 15-minute halves of extra time. If it’s still level, the match is decided by a penalty shootout.

So if Atlanta United wins, who will they play?

That’s the tricky part since there are two options here since all teams are reseeded after the knockout round. If the sixth-seeded New York Red Bulls beat the third-seeded Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on Wednesday, Atlanta would play New York City FC and RBNY would play Toronto in the semifinals. If Chicago win, Atlanta would play top-seeded Toronto FC as the lowest remaining seed in the East.

Now, if Columbus wins...well, let’s not entertain that thought.

OK, so let’s talk about the conference semifinals. Is that a knockout game too?

Nope! That is a two-legged series that is decided by aggregate scoring. In other words, the team with the most goals after the two games moves on to the conference finals. Atlanta, as the lower seed regardless of whichever potential opponent they would face in the semifinals, would host the first leg on October 30 or 31, with the higher-seeded team hosting the second leg on November 5.

All right. Let’s say Atlanta wins 1-0 at home and the other team wins 1-0 at their place. What happens then?

Good question! Since the aggregate scoreline would be 1-1 (imagine it as one 180-minute match), it would go to extra time to break the deadlock. If no winner on aggregate is determined, it would go to a penalty shootout.

Interesting. So let’s say Team A and Team B play to a scoreless draw at Team A’s place and then draw 2-2 at Team B’s place. That means it goes to a penalty shootout, right.

Another great question! I should probably mention away goals in this case, which is where it gets a little tricky.

If a series is level on aggregate, the “tiebreaker”, if you will, would be goals scored by each team as the away side. So, even though the scoreline would be 2-2 on aggregate, Team A (as the away side in Leg 2) would advance because they have two away goals. Now, if they played to a 2-2 draw at Team A’s place in leg 1 and a 0-0 draw at Team 2’s place in leg 2, Team B would advance on away goals.

Now, here’s the tricky part. Let’s say Team A won 1-0 at their place for leg 1 and Team B was up 1-0 at their place in leg 2 after 90 minutes. It would go to extra time. However, even if both teams score in extra time, which would make it 2-2 on aggregate with Team A holding an away goal, Team A wouldn’t advance. Why? Because away goals scored in extra time can’t be used as a potential tiebreaker. The match would still go to a penalty shootout.

Keeping that in mind, with the higher seed hosting the second leg, it’s important for them to get as many goals as possible in the first leg as a visitor. If Team B wins 3-0 in the first leg away to Team A, they’re in great position in leg 2. A high-scoring team could use away goals to their full advantage in this case.

All right, so let’s move to the conference finals. Same format as the conference semifinals?

Correct! Again, the lower seed would host leg 1 and the higher seed would host leg 2. Both the East and West play their first leg on November 21, with the second leg on either November 28 or 29 in the East and November 30 in the West.

Great! So the winners of each conference final move on to the MLS Cup Final. Is that the same format?

Nope! That is a one-game final. That game would be hosted by the team with the best regular-season record and will be played on December 9 at 4pm ET.