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MLS confirms new 10-team playoff format

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With less than a month to go before First Kick, Major League Soccer has finally confirmed the new playoff structure for 2011.

As hinted by commissioner Don Garber at last year’s MLS Cup in Toronto, the playoffs will expand to 10 teams from eight.

And, even though the likelihood is reduced in the new set-up, there is still a chance that two teams from the same conference can meet in MLS Cup, as has been the case for the past two seasons.

How will it work? The top three teams in each conference all get in. After that, the teams with the next four best records, no matter the conference, get in. The four teams will be seeded. No. 1 hosts No. 4, while No. 2 hosts No. 3. The winners of those one-game playoffs survive.

The lower seed out of the surviving two teams goes on to face the winner of the Supporters’ Shield. The higher seed faces the other conference champion. That means a lower-seeded team from the East could face the Supporters’ Shield winner from the West (or vice versa). It can also mean that both wild cards come from the same conference (more likely the West, which has been much stronger than the East for years).

We are still waiting on a decision on MLS Cup. The league had discussed changing the host city of the season finale from a neutral site to the home of the team involved in the game with the superior record. In 2009, the league almost changed the format, but the reaction of fans in Seattle — who came out in droves on a cold, rainy night to see Real Salt Lake beat Los Angeles, convinced the MLS domos to keep with the neutral-site format. But empty seats at BMO Field in 2010 for FC Dallas-Colorado dampened a lot of the enthusiasm for neutral-site games.

As has been the case previously, when the field goes down to eight teams, the conference playoffs will be two-legged affairs, while the conference finals are single-game eliminations.

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