The MLS Cup Playoffs is the annual postseason elimination tournament of Major League Soccer. The final match of the tournament is the MLS Cup, the league's championship game. Under the current format adopted for the 2019 season, 14 teams qualify for the tournament based on regular-season point totals—the seven highest-placed teams from both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Audi is the title sponsor of this tournament.
|Number of teams||14|
|Current champions||New York City FC (1st title)|
|2021 MLS Cup Playoffs|
Awarding a championship through a postseason tournament differs from most other soccer leagues around the world, where the team with the most points at the end of the season is deemed champion. MLS awards the regular-season champions with the Supporters' Shield, and the winner must be a U.S.-based team in order to earn a direct berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental tournament.
In the 2020 season, the top ten teams from the Eastern Conference and top eight teams from the Western Conference qualified for the playoffs, playing in separate brackets. All rounds were single-match eliminations hosted by the higher seed and there was no re-seeding in subsequent rounds. Extra time (divided into two 15-minute periods) and a penalty shoot-out were used if the teams were still tied.
The teams ranked 7th through 10th in the Eastern Conference competed in a play-in round, to join the top six seeds who were given a bye. In the first round, the lowest remaining seed from the play-in round (New England Revolution) played against the Eastern Conference regular-season champions, the Philadelphia Union, while the highest remaining seed from that round (Nashville SC) played against the Conference runners-up, Toronto FC. 3rd place vs 6th place and 4th place vs 5th place were the other first-round pairings. First-round winners advanced to the Conference Semifinals; winners of the Conference Semifinals advanced to the Conference Finals.
The Western Conference had the top eight teams qualifying. There was no play-in round; the top-seeded team hosted the 8th seed, with 2nd place vs 7th place, 3rd place vs 6th place and 4th place vs 5th place being the other first-round pairings. The first-round winners then advanced to the Conference Semifinals and then the Conference Finals, just like in the East.
The winners of each Conference Finals, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders FC, then competed in the MLS Cup, a single match hosted by Columbus, who had the better regular-season record; Columbus won the game and was thus crowned MLS Cup champions.
In 2021, as in the 2019 season, the top seven teams per conference qualified for the playoffs. The top-seeded team gets a first-round bye.
In 2022, the top eight teams per conference will qualify for the playoffs, and the top seed will host the eighth seed in the first round.
The Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals were formerly conducted in a home-and-away, aggregate-goal format. From 2014 to 2018, the away goals rule was used for these rounds. In both rounds, the higher-seeded team hosted the second leg. If the teams were tied after two games (180 minutes), the team that scored more goals on the road advanced. If there was still a tie after the away goals rule has been applied, the teams played 30 minutes of extra time (divided into two 15-minute periods), followed by a penalty shoot-out if necessary. The away goals rule did not apply to goals scored in these extra time periods.
Fourteen teams qualify for the playoffs: the top seven teams from the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference that had earned the best points per game record during the 34-game regular season. The top-seeded team in each conference gets a first-round bye, advancing to the conference semifinals, and will host the fourth-fifth seed winner from the first round.
If at least two teams finish the regular season with an equal number of points, the following criteria are used to break the tie.
- most wins
- goal differential
- goals scored
- fewer disciplinary points
- away goal differential
- away goals scored
- home goal differential
- home goals scored
- coin toss (2 clubs) or drawing of lots (3 clubs)
|Seasons||League teams||Playoff teams||% of teams||Matches played|
MLS playoff recordsEdit
- Records include all knockout playoff matches, individual legs of aggregate-goal rounds, and MLS Cup appearances.
Note: Players in bold are still active for an MLS club.
|Games to be played|
- Matches determined by shoot-out counted as win-loss, not draw
- As of the conclusion of 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs
|Club||MLS Cups||MLS Cup
|Atlanta United FC||1||1||6||4||0|
|Chicago Fire FC||1||3||20||16||5|
|Houston Dynamo FC||2||4||17||10||6|
|Inter Miami CF||0||0||0||1||0|
|Los Angeles FC||0||0||1||2||0|
|Minnesota United FC||0||0||0||2||0|
|New England Revolution||0||5||20||20||7|
|New York City FC||1||1||6||7||0|
|New York Red Bulls||0||1||19||28||8|
|Orlando City SC||0||0||1||2||0|
|Real Salt Lake||1||2||13||12||5|
|San Jose Earthquakes||2||2||13||11||1|
|Seattle Sounders FC||2||4||22||14||5|
|Sporting Kansas City||2||3||21||25||8|
|Tampa Bay Mutiny||0||0||1||4||0|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||0||0||1||5||2|
- As of November 7th, 2021
|Atlanta United FC||4||1||3|
|Chicago Fire FC||13||0||6|
|Houston Dynamo FC||8||0||4|
|Inter Miami CF||1||1||1|
|Los Angeles FC||3||3||3|
|Minnesota United FC||3||3||3|
|New England Revolution||16||3||8|
|New York City FC||6||6||6|
|New York Red Bulls||22||12||12|
|Orlando City SC||2||2||2|
|Real Salt Lake||11||1||7|
|San Jose Earthquakes||10||1||5|
|Seattle Sounders FC||13||13||13|
|Sporting Kansas City||19||2||8|
|Tampa Bay Mutiny||4||0||2|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||5||1||2|
- Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny folded after completion of the 2001 season
- Chivas USA folded after completion of the 2014 season
MLS playoff shoot-outsEdit
- MLS began implementing a shoot-out to determine the winner of a playoff series in 2004.
- From 2014 to 2018 the away goals rule was used (but not in extra time).
- As of November 23, 2021
|Rank||Rounds||Home Team||Score||Away Team||Season / Stage|
|1||11||Portland Timbers||2–2 (7–6)||Sporting Kansas City||2015 Knockout Round|
|2||10||Sporting Kansas City||1–1 (7–6)||Real Salt Lake||2013 MLS Cup|
|3||8||Portland Timbers||1–1 (7–8)||FC Dallas||2020 First round|
|4||7||Orlando City SC||1–1 (6–5)||New York City FC||2020 First round|
|Real Salt Lake||1–1 (5–4)||Los Angeles Galaxy||2009 MLS Cup|
|Chicago Fire||0–0 (4–5)||Real Salt Lake||2009 Conference Finals|
|7||6||Seattle Sounders FC||0–0 (5–6)||Real Salt Lake||2021 First round|
|Toronto FC||0–0 (4–5)||Seattle Sounders FC||2016 MLS Cup|
|FC Dallas||4–4 (4–5)||Colorado Rapids||2006 Conference Semifinals|
|D.C. United||3–3 (4–3)||New England Revolution||2004 Conference finals|
|5 games have been decided in 5 rounds|
3 games have been decided in 4 rounds
1 game has been decided in 3 rounds
Game played at neutral location
- Bogert, Tom (September 11, 2020). "MLS announces new playoff format for 2019 season". Major League Soccer. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
- "Major League Soccer to introduce away-goals rule for first time in 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs". MLS. March 7, 2014. Retrieved March 9, 2014.
- "MLS adopts away goals rule". ESPN. March 8, 2014. Retrieved March 9, 2014.
- Bogert, Tom (December 17, 2018). "MLS announces new playoff format for 2019 season". Major League Soccer. Retrieved December 17, 2018.
- "MLS Cup Playoff Format". Retrieved October 29, 2018.
- "New tiebreakers designed to encourage attacking play". MLS Communications. MLSSoccer.com. Retrieved October 1, 2012.