MLS 201 – A Guide To Our New League

MLS ball

Ahead of FC Cincinnati’s first season in MLS, here’s a guide to help with background info on the club’s new league, its new structure and more.
 This is the second of a five-part series. The first, which focused on the league’s history and current structure, can be found here.
Supporters’ Shield

FC Cincinnati’s 2018 USL Regular Season Championship trophy sits on the fourth floor of the club’s downtown headquarters. The Orange and Blue won the trophy after they had the best regular season record of any team in the USL, regardless of conference alignment. 

The same occurs in MLS and the trophy itself is called the Supporters’ Shield.

If Cincinnati has the highest points total of any club at the end of the 34-game season, the club will win another trophy. New York Red Bulls won the MLS Supporters’ Shield in 2018, edging out Atlanta United FC in the final day of the 2018 season: Decision Day. New York won and gained three points, while Atlanta lost and dropped three points. New York claimed the Supporters’ Shield by two points — 71 points to 69.

New playoff structure

MLS has a postseason, too: the MLS Cup Playoffs. The best teams from the regular season compete in the postseason for a chance to win the league’s championship. Atlanta United FC won the 2018 MLS Cup. 

As for qualifying for the playoffs, the top seven teams in both conferences advance into the postseason in 2019. This is an increase of one team per conference from last year as the league has instituted a new postseason structure this year. That also means that more teams in the Eastern Conference will make the postseason (seven) than not (five).

Once qualified, they’ll play in single-elimination matches that lead to the MLS Cup Final. With the new playoff format in 2019, this is a switch from the tradition cup set-up with home-and-away series in each leg. 

There is a strong advantage to earning each conference’s top seed: a first-round playoff bye. The second seed will face the seventh seed, the third and sixth seed will meet and the fourth and fifth seeds will play for spots in the conference semifinals. Then the top seed will come back in to the bracket.  

Another change this year is that the MLS Cup Playoffs will be condensed into the month window between the October and November FIFA international breaks. Previously, there was a FIFA window late in the regular season, and again in the middle of the MLS Cup Playoffs — meaning some teams’ key players could miss very important games.

Now, the MLS competition calendar has been moved so the regular season ends — Decision Day — the first Sunday in October. This will allow for a week off to prepare for the postseason during the October FIFA break before the postseason gets underway with the first round of game on Oct. 19 and 20.

The conference semifinals will follow in midweek tilts on Oct. 23 and 24, before the conference championships are played on Oct. 29 and 30. With a 10-break to prepare, the Eastern and Western Conference champions will play at the home of the club with the better regular-season record on Sunday, Nov. 10.

U.S. Open Cup

FC Cincinnati fans know a thing or two about the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. After all, the club was two wins away from hoisting the 2017 trophy as second-division team.

The U.S. Open Cup is the country’s national championship. As long as a club qualifies, it can participate and has a shot at winning the tournament. That’s how second-tier FCC advanced to the semifinals after beating an NPSL club (fourth division), USL club (second division) and two MLS teams before losing to Red Bulls in extra time.

Previously, Cincinnati started in the second round of the tournament as a USL entrant. Now, it’ll start in the fourth round — with the rest of the U.S.-based MLS teams — as a member of the top division. 

The U.S. Open Cup is not associated with MLS, although MLS teams regularly win the Open Cup. The U.S. Soccer Federation administers the U.S. Open Cup.

Concacaf Champions League

The Concacaf Champions League is a continent-wide tournament that determines the best club in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The 2019 tournament is already underway and currently features five MLS teams. There are 16 teams in the competition. 

If FC Cincinnati were to qualify, they’d play teams from different countries for the first time in club history (ignoring Canada).

Here’s a guide to the current MLS teams competing in the CCL, as well how each club qualified: 

MLS qualifiers - 2019 CCL
Atlanta United (2018 MLS Cup winner)
New York Red Bulls (2018 MLS Supporters’ Shield Winner)
Sporting KC (2017 U.S. Open Cup winner)
Houston Dynamo (2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup winner)
Toronto FC (2018 Canadian Championship winner)
Top individual award

The trophies above are team-based achievements. There are multiple awards available to MLS players, but the biggest is the Landon Donovan MVP award, which is earned by the league’s best player. 

The MVP award is determined by players, media and club management. Josef Martinez of Atlanta United won the 2018 Landon Donovan MVP Award after he set the MLS record for goals in a season (31) and led ATLUTD to one of the best records in the league. Martinez’s Atlanta United FC squad travel to play at Nippert Stadium on Sept. 18.