MLS released the Playoff format for the 2011 season today. The playoffs have been expanded this year to 10 teams, with the top three teams from each conference automatically qualifying. The next four teams (wild cards), regardless of conference, will meet for a single match in the play-in round, with team 1 playing team 4 and team 2 playing team 3. Of the two winning teams in the wild card round, the team with fewer points will face the Supporters' Shield winners, and the team with the higher point total will visit the top seed in the other conference.
As a fan of D.C. United, I think the playoff format is great.
With the Western Conference likely to be as dominant in 2011 as it has been in 2009 and 2010, the new format guarantees at least three Eastern Conference teams will make the playoffs. First of all, that means that the New York Red Bulls, the consensus pick to win the East, will get to lose in the first round again to the hottest team emerging from the wild card round again. And United will be battling with the remainder of the Eastern mediocrity for the other two guaranteed spots. And with MLS keeping the conference semifinal round as a home-and-home series, there's no real advantage to finishing in the second spot. Third would be fine by me.
The East seems likely to be a jumble of teams in competition for relatively few spots. Sporting Kansas City looks to have improved enough to be a favorite to make the playoffs, but who else?
That's why I want to reinforce a point again that I made previously in the comments section of our Pat Onstad story: our first two games of the season could be really important. We can beat the Columbus Crew and we can beat the New England Revolution. Those are two of the teams I expect us to be competing with for a playoff spot at the end of the season (Columbus probably won't be as bad as a lot of people think), so getting points from them early in the year could pay significant dividends towards the end.