MLS 101: Why is MLS Cup in Columbus?

COLUMBUS, Ohio

In a rather fitting reflection of the season to date, the path to hosting MLS Cup is a particularly circuitous one. The circumstances this year highlight the complexities of the regulations and underscore the narrow margins that sent this final to Ohio instead of Oregon.

MLS shifted from neutral-site MLS hosts to the home of the highest remaining seed in 2012

In the first 16 years of its existence, MLS held MLS Cup at a pre-determined site. Three teams hosted the final because they advanced to MLS Cup through the playoffs (D.C. United in 1997, New England in 2002 and LA Galaxy in 2011), but the league decided the location of the final well before that point.

MLS opted to shift course three years ago after a lackluster neutral site encounter in 2010 — Colorado defeated FC Dallas after extra time in frigid Toronto — and the success of the final at the Home Depot Center the following year. As part of a sweeping set of changes designed to eliminate crossover playoff games between conferences, league executives decided to reward regular-season achievement by awarding MLS Cup to the finalist with the best remaining 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,” former MLS executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez (and current Chicago Fire general manager) Nelson Rodriguez said in a statement at the time. “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.”

The Supporters’ Shield standings after the final day of the regular season set the hosting priority order. The teams are ranked from 1-12 based on total points and other tiebreakers. The highest remaining finisher among the finalists stages MLS Cup.

Decision Day results ensure Columbus edges Portland on tiebreakers

Columbus and Portland entered the final day of the regular season with identical records (14-11-8), but Crew SC held a modest advantage on goal difference (Crew SC at 0, Timbers at -1). The two sides ranked below other teams in their respective conferences — New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas cinched the top seeds in their quest for the Supporters’ Shield — yet the race between the two of them ultimately proved decisive.

Both teams eventually improved their playoff standing with victories on Decision Day. Columbus climbed over D.C. United in the head-to-head battle for second place in the East by delivering a 5-0 thrashing at MAPFRE Stadium. Portland sealed third place out West with a comfortable 3-1 victory over Colorado at Providence Park.

The two results left Crew SC and the Timbers deadlocked on final records (15-11-8), points (53) and total wins (15). The margin between the two victories — and, most critically, the four second-half goals scored by Columbus in the rout against United — separated them on the third tiebreaker: goal difference. Crew SC ended the season with a three-goal edge in that department (+5 to +2).

(One other peculiarity worth noting: The regular-season meeting between the two sides — Portland’s 2-1 victory at Columbus on Sept. 26 — did not enter the reckoning because MLS phased out head-to-head results as a tiebreaker after the 2012 season due to the imbalanced schedule.)

It took a series of unanticipated postseason results for those goals to matter, but they comprised the difference between the two teams over the course of the regular season. That slender gap is why Crew SC is preparing to host MLS Cup on Sunday and why the Timbers are trying to wring out one last road victory to win the title for the first time.