In just a few short weeks, soccer fans will be settling in for an exciting month of MLS playoff action. Assuming they qualify, Seattle Sounders will look to defend their 2016 MLS Cup Title, while 11 other teams across the Eastern and Western Conferences will look to dethrone the champions.

If you’re new to MLS soccer or simply wait until postseason to watch, here’s a quick breakdown of everything you should expect in late October.

When Do the MLS Playoffs Start?

On Wednesday, October 25 and Thursday, October 26, the MLS Cup Playoffs will begin its Knockout Round games. These single elimination games will see the bottom four seeds from each conference face off against each other. The East’s third seed will face off against its sixth seed, while the fourth seed will play the fifth. The same will go for the Western Conference.

The Knockout round winners will advance to the Conference Semifinals, which takes place between Sunday, October 29 and Sunday, November 5.

After a short break to observe the international FIFA window, the Conference Finals will commence on Tuesday, November 21.

Finally, it will all come down to the MLS Cup, featuring a single, winner-takes-all game on Saturday, December 9.

How Does the Format Work?

Since the 2015 season, the MLS Cup Playoffs have had the following format featuring each conference’s top six teams:

Conference Knockout Rounds (Single Elimination)
3-seed vs. 6-seed
4-seed vs. 5-seed

Conference Semifinals (Two legs/games, aggregate scoring)
Knockout Winner #1 vs. 2-seed
Knockout Winner #2 vs. 1-seed

Conference Finals (Two legs/games, aggregate scoring)
Semifinals Winner #1 vs. Semifinals Winner #2

MLS Cup Finals (Single game, winner-takes-all)
Eastern Conference Champions vs. Western Conference Champions

Much like major European soccer tournaments – i.e. Champions League – the Conference Semifinals and Finals are two-legged and feature aggregate scoring. Each team hosts one of the legs, with the lower seed team hosting the first of the two. The team with the highest goal total after those two games advances and, in the event of a tie, the Away Scoring rule is used. This means that, whichever team scored more goals away from home moves on to the

The Cup Final is back to a single-game format, just like the Knockout Rounds, and the winner of that game will be crowned the MLS Cup Champions.

MLS Playoff Rules

Since the Semifinals and Finals are two-legged, aggregate scoring, there are special rules in effect. Each team hosts one of the legs, with the lower seed team hosting the first of the two. The team with the highest goal total after those two games advances and, in the event of a tie, the Away Scoring rule is used. This means that, whichever team scored more goals away from home moves on to the next round.

If that away scoring stat ends in a tie as well, the two teams move on to 30 minutes of extra time, divided into two, 15-minute halves. A penalty shootout follows this if the score is still tied.

What Teams Are in the MLS Playoffs?

While we still have nearly a month left in the MLS regular season, a few teams have already clinched their spots in the Cup playoffs, while others are nearly at the finish line. Here’s a quick look:

Eastern Conference
Toronto FC (In)
New York City FC (In)

Atlanta United (Nearly)
Chicago Fire (Nearly)

Western Conference
Vancouver Whitecaps (Nearly)

The rest of the Western Conference is extremely close in point totals. With a month left to play, multiple playoff spots are still up for grabs. To put it in perspective, only 10 points separate top-seeded Vancouver from 8-seeded FC Dallas. The Western Conference playoff race will certainly be one to watch throughout October.

Playoff Difference Makers

Every MLS playoffs has its difference makers – the defenders, goal scorers, or goalkeepers that shape the outcome of a semifinal or final. Last year, it was Seattle keeper Stefan Frei who was the difference maker throughout the playoffs and especially in the Cup Final shootout win over Toronto FC. In the final, he made six saves in regular/extra time as well as one in the shootout.

Champions are often defined by their playoff difference makers so let’s look briefly look at a couple of guys who can be the Stefan Frei of 2017.

Josef Martinez (Atlanta United)
Martinez is an absolute nightmare for opposing defenders. Despite being just 5’7,” the Atlanta forward is extremely tough to knock off the ball and he’s deadly inside the box. With 17 goals, including eight at home, Martinez is well within reach of the illustrious Golden Boot, awarded to the league’s top regular-season scorer. If he stays healthy heading into the playoffs, opposing teams will have a tough time keeping the ball out of their nets.

Fredy Montero (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Barring a complete meltdown over the next month, Vancouver will be heading to the MLS Cup Playoffs with Colombian forward Fredy Montero. The 30-year-old has enjoyed a wonderful season on loan with the Whitecaps. In 29 appearances, he has 13 goals and six assists. Much like, Atlanta’s Martinez, Montero is short but explosive. His consistent play has helped Vancouver get to the top of the West and it could also help them make a deep run in the playoffs.

Who Will Win the 2017 MLS Cup?

Despite being the defending champs, the Seattle Sounders have looked shaky at times this season. Sure, they’ve lost just a single game in the last three months, but they also haven’t won one in their last five appearances. The next four weeks will be telling when it comes to their repeat chances, but as of now, the team is surely beatable by one of the beasts in the East.
As of now, I expect Toronto FC to take home the MLS Cup. With 62 points and the Supporters’ Shield all but in their hands, the team up North looks nearly impossible to beat.

While the majority of October will see postseason baseball taking precedent, we can’t forget about the excitement that the MLS Cup Playoffs will bring starting on October 25.