[MLS] More teams and more games in the 2011 MLS season will also produce more matches and teams in the playoffs. The league announced in the lead-up to MLS Cup 2010 last November that the playoff field would be expanded from eight to 10 teams, and on Wednesday the format was confirmed. Along with the three top finishers in the nine-team conferences, four additional teams will qualify based on overall points.
Those four teams will enter an additional playoff round from which two winners will emerge to round out a field of eight that will contest the two-leg conference semifinals. The four wild cards will be seeded by points and the higher seeds will host knockout games: No. 4 at No. 1 and No. 3 at No. 2, with the winners advancing.
In the conference semifinals, which are again two-game series, the lowest-seeded surviving team will meet the overall points leader (Supporters’ Shield winner) with the other survivor playing the first-place finisher in the conference that doesn’t produce the Shield winner. In the other two conference semifinals the No. 2 and No. 3 finishers square off within the conference.
By not finishing in the top three in their conferences, the wild-card teams must play an extra playoff game. Under the current format, MLS Cup matches the survivors of three games (two in the conference finals and one conference final). The league has also minimized the chances of a team “crossing over” to win the championship of the other conference, as has occurred in each of the past three seasons.
Not yet announced are dates for playoff games, including that for MLS Cup 2011. Last November, Commissioner Don Garber said the feasibility of staging MLS Cup at the venue of the highest surviving seed was under discussion, but on Wednesday came word it will be played at a predetermined site.
MLS could stage the wild-card games midweek, just a few days after the conclusion of the regular season, or wait until the following weekend. The latter scenario could push the date of MLS Cup back a week, unless the league plays the two conference semifinal matches in one week (midweek/weekend), which would give the higher-seeded team the weekend leg. This would also allow the league to retain its current playoff scheduling, with three weeks of games leading up to MLS Cup on the fourth weekend.
The 2011 MLS Playoff Format, round by round:
Wild-card round (single game): Based on overall points, No. 4 at No. 1; No. 3 at No. 2.
Conference semifinals (two games): Lower-seeded wild-card winner vs. Supporters’ Shield winner, higher-seeded wild-card survivor vs. other conference champion; Western Conference No. 3 vs. No. 2, Eastern Conference No. 3 vs. No. 2.
Conference finals (single game): Semifinal winners, higher seed hosts.
MLS Cup (single game): Conference winners, site and date TBA.