The Vancouver Whitecaps qualified for the playoffs by virtue of winning the Western Division of the National Conference with 172 points. The Whitecaps defeated the Dallas Tornado in a first round series, two games to none. The first leg was played on August 15, 1979 in Dallas. The 'Caps won the match 3–2. The return leg was played in Vancouver on August 18, 1979 before 30,328 fans. The home side did not disappoint, delivering a series winning 2–1 victory. In the conference semifinal series they went up against a divisional foe that knew them well, the Los Angeles Aztecs. Game 1 of the series proved to be their biggest test yet. When regulation ended the teams were level at 2–2. After 15 minutes of scoreless golden goal extra time the teams moved on to an NASL shoot-out, which the Aztecs won 2–1. With their backs against the wall in Game 2, the Whitecaps delivered a gritty 1–0 victory to tie the series at one game apiece. The squads took a 10 minute intermission before returning to the pitch to play a 30 minute mini-game tie breaker. Vancouver won it 1–0, sending 32,375 fans home happy and themselves into the National Conference finals. In what would prove to be one of the most memorable series in NASL history, they faced the defending champion and number one seeded New York Cosmos. The first game was played in Vancouver on August 29, 1979 before 32,875. The Whitecaps top defense stymied the high powered Cosmos' attack to the tune of 2–0. The second leg was played at Giants Stadium on September 1, 1979, with 44,109 in the stands and millions more watching the nationally televised match on ABC. The affair was a dogfight that saw Willie Johnston level the score at 2–2 with a diving header the 85th minute to force extra time. The Cosmos won a shootout 3–1, after neither team able to breakthrough in the 15 minutes of extra time. This tied the series at 1 game apiece, and set the stage for another 30 minute mini-game. In the mini-game each teamed thought they'd taken the lead, only to have referee Toros Kaibritjain wave off the goal. And so, after another scoreless 30 minutes, a shootout was again the order of the day. This time it however, it was Vancouver who would come out on top 3–2, to win the National Conference title and earn a hard-fought, well-deserved spot in the Soccer Bowl.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies' road to the finals, though not nearly as bumpy, had its challenges as well. Tampa Bay qualified for the playoffs by virtue of winning the Eastern Division of the National Conference with 169 points. The Rowdies easily dispatched the Detroit Express in a first round series, two games to none. The first leg was played in the climate-controlled Pontiac Silverdome on August 15, 1979. The Rowdies won convincingly that evening, 3–0. The return leg was played at Tampa Stadium in the afternoon heat of August 19, 1979, before 27,210 fans. The Rowdies again proved to be too much for the Express, delivering a series winning 3–1 victory. In the conference semifinal series they went up against the upstart Philadelphia Fury, who had coolly swept the number one seeded Houston Hurricane out of the playoffs. On the evening of August 23, 1979, after four second-half goals, game 1 of the series ended level at 2–2. Following a scoreless overtime period, the teams moved to a shoot-out, which the Rowdies won 2–0. Game 2 was played on a hot and muggy Florida afternoon before 21,112 sweat-drenched fans, with national television coverage from ABC. Tampa Bay counter punched their way to a 1–0 victory on Steve Wegerle's goal and Željko Bilecki's save of a late penalty kick on August 23, 1979. The win propelled them into the Eastern Conference finals. Their opponent for this series was the Western Division winner, San Diego Sockers, whom the Rowdies had eliminated the previous year via the mini-game. The Sockers took game 1 on August 30, 1979 at home, by the score of 2–1. When the teams returned to Tampa, the pressure was squarely on the Rowdies' shoulders. In a match played under threat of cancellation due to Hurricane David on September 2, 1979, and reminiscent of the previous day's Whitecaps-Cosmos tilt, 38,766 fans witnessed a 2–2 draw that needed a shoot-out to break the deadlock. Tampa Bay wasted no time converting their first three shots, while goalie Winston DuBose snuffed out all three Sockers' attempts. The ensuing 30 minute mini-game had early drama as the diminutive Ivan Grnja scored in the third minute, just 27 seconds after entering the match as a substitute for the injured John Gorman. From there the Rowdies hung on the rest of the way for a 1–0 win, the American Conference title, and their second straight trip to the Soccer Bowl.