The MLS Cup Playoffs is the postseasonelimination tournament of Major League Soccer held at the end of the regular season en route to the MLS Cup, the league's championship game. 12 teams in total from the Eastern Conference and Western Conference qualify for the tournament based on regular-season records, and a tiebreaking procedure exists in the case of equal records. Awarding the league championship through a postseason tournament differs from most other soccer leagues around the world where the team with the most points at the end of the season is deemed champion. MLS awards the regular season winners with the Supporters' Shield and a direct berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental tournament. The regular season champion must be a U.S.-based club in order to receive direct entry to Champions League.
From 2012 through 2014, the top five teams in each conference qualified for the playoffs, in which the two brackets are entirely separate. The first round of each conference was a one-off match between the fourth- and fifth-place teams, with the fourth-place team hosting. The first round winner advances to play the conference's top seed in the Conference Semifinals. Starting from 2015 the top six teams per conference qualify, with the second one-off match between the third- and sixth-place teams (third-place team is host), with the lowest remaining seed playing the top seed, and the next-lowest playing the second in the Conference Semifinals.
The Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals are conducted in a home-and-away, aggregate-goal format. The team that scores the most goals in the home-and-away series advances to the two-game, total-goals Conference Finals. Since 2014 the away goals rule is used. In both rounds the lower-seeded team hosts Game One and the higher-seeded team Game Two. If the teams are tied after two games (180 minutes) in the Conference Semifinals or Finals, the team which scored more goals away from home advances. If there is still a tie after the away goals rule is applied, a 30-minute overtime period (divided into two 15-minute periods) will be played followed by a penalty kick shootout, if necessary. The away goals rule does not apply to goals scored in the overtime period.
From 2012 through 2014 10 teams qualified for the playoffs: the top five teams in each conference that have the most points in the standings upon the completion of the 34-game regular season. (Next season the league will expand to 12 teams, with the top 6 teams per conference going.)
The top five teams in each conference were seeded first to fifth in their respective five-team playoff conference brackets. (Starting 2015, first through sixth in their six-team conference brackets.)
The top three teams got a bye; the fourth and fifth place teams in each conference play in the first round. (Starting next season, top two teams get byes; in addition to the fourth seed playing host to the fifth, the third seed plays host to the sixth.)