Major League Soccer's Board of Governors this weekend approved a new competition format for 2012, expanding the conference finals to a two-game, home-and-away series determined by aggregate goals and awarding home-field advantage in the MLS Cup to the finalist that finishes with the best regular-season record.
“The MLS Cup playoff format in 2012 gives increased reward to clubs that fare well in the regular season and removes the possibility of clubs winning the opposite conference championship,” MLS Executiuve Vice President Nelson Rodriguez said. “Having a competitively determined site for MLS Cup is one of the most exciting improvements our Board of Governors has adopted. We believe this provides every club a tremendous incentive during our regular season and ensures a festive and boisterous setting for our championship game.”
In its first 16 seasons, MLS awarded the site of its Cup final ahead of the season, similar to how the NFL determines the site for the Super Bowl. Just three times in that span -- including this season -- has a Cup finalist wound up playing the game at home. Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, whose team has finished with the best regular-season record each of the last two seasons, was among those who criticized the old MLS playoff format for failing to sufficiently reward teams that play well during the regular season.
Five teams from each conference will advance to the playoffs with fourth- and fifth-place finishers meeting in a one-game playoff to determine which will advance to the two-game conference semifinals. That series will be determined by aggregate goals. And in a break from previous years, the 2012 conference finals will also be a two-game, aggregate-goal series.
With the addition of the expansion Montreal Impact next season, MLS will field 19 teams in 2012, 10 in the Eastern Conference and the same nine that competed this season in the West. Each team will play 34 games, an equal number against conference foes and one game each against teams from outside their conference.
-- Kevin Baxter
Photo: Galaxy forward Robbie Keane celebrates his goal against Real Salt Lake with midfielder David Beckham (23) and defender Todd Dunivant in the second half of the MLS Western Conference championship game at Home Depot Center two weeks ago. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Reuters