The 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs begin just over one month from now. There's much to be decided before then - D.C. United could either rise or fall int he Eastern Conference - but its worth looking at what the format will be for the playoffs this year, since its different from every year before. If you're a hardcore fan and follow all action around the league closely, then this will serve as a mere reminder to you. If you're more of a casual fan, this should be a handy reference for you.
The regular season will end on Oct. 27, with the top five teams in each conference advancing to the playoffs. There is no possibility of switching conferences this year. The top five teams move on, all others are done.
The fourth and fifth seeded teams in each conference will have to compete in a single play-in game, hosted by the team in fourth place. I don't need to tell you how important this would be for United. You may have heard that United hasn't lost a game at home since March. The team's record on the road isn't quite as impressive, especially against playoff-caliber teams. If United is forced to participate in the play-in game, which may be the case with Sporting Kansas City, the New York Red Bulls, and the Chicago Fire all playing well, finishing in fourth rather than fifth is vital to United's continued success.
The winner of the play-in game will draw a matchup against the team that finishes in first place in the conference, with the second and third place teams also facing each other. This Conference Semifinal round will be a two-game aggregate series, with the play-in winner and the third place teams hosting the initial game. This is why United fans might actually be in the uncomfortable situation of rooting for the Red Bulls to beat the Sporks tonight and finish in first place in the Eastern Conference. Because if United does indeed win the play-in game, I'd much rather face New York in the next round than Kansas City. Wouldn't you?
The Conference Finals will also be a two-game aggregate series for the first time this year. If any series is tied at the end of the second game, we'll see the typical FIFA rules to settle the match. There will be two mandatory 15-minute overtime sessions, and then penalty kicks if the score is still even after overtime.
The MLS Cup Final will take place on Dec. 1, with the team with the higher regular season point total hosting the match. So if we're pretty much intent on settling for United finishing in fourth or fifth, this means that its highly unlikely that we'll get to see United lift another trophy at RFK Stadium. They'll have to do it on the road.