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What happens if MLS Cup final is tied? Are there penalties?

We take a look at the format of the 2021 MLS Cup final, which sees the Eastern Conference champions face the winners of the Western Conference on 11 December.

What happens if MLS Cup final is tied? Are there penalties?
Omar VegaGetty Images

Scheduled for 11 December at an as yet unconfirmed venue, the 2021 MLS Cup final will be played in single-game format and must be decided on the day. Should the scores be level after 90 minutes, extra time and penalties will be used to determine the winner.

30 minutes of extra time followed by penalty shoot-out

Extra time will consist of two halves lasting 15 minutes each and will be played in its entirety.

If the two teams still can’t be separated after the additional half hour, a best-of-five penalty shoot-out will be held. If, after five spot-kicks each, the sides remain level, they will take additional rounds of sudden-death penalties until one team scores and the other misses.

See also:

How extra time, penalties have evolved in MLS Cup final

MLS’ method for tie-breaking in knockout games is typical of any FIFA-recognised competition around the world, but it has not always been this way.

The 35-yard shoot-out

In the early seasons after its formation in 1996, the league memorably adopted an experimental, short-lived penalty shoot-out format, which was also initially used, together with a 10-minute golden-goal overtime, to decide tied regular-season games.

Instead of taking kicks from the penalty spot, players had five seconds to carry the ball forward from a starting position 35 yards out and beat the goalkeeper in a one-one.

The 35-yard shoot-out was scrapped in 2000 in favour of regular penalties, having never been used to determine the outcome of an MLS Cup final.

Here's what the 35-yard shoot-out looked like:

Golden-goal rule

The golden-goal rule, by which the first team to score in extra time wins the game, was also a feature of early MLS Cup finals, and was decisive in three out of the first seven championship games.

The golden goal last tipped the balance in an MLS Cup final in 2002, when Carlos Ruiz’s 113th-minute strike gave Los Angeles Galaxy a 1-0 win over New England Revolution, before being scrapped.

Four MLS Cup finals decided by penalties

In all, 10 of the 25 MLS Cup finals played so far have gone to extra time, with four - in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016 - then advancing to penalty kicks. Seattle Sounders' 5-4 shoot-out win over Toronto FC five years ago, which followed a 0-0 draw at BMO Field, is the last time the final was not decided in 90 minutes.

2021 MLS playoffs: remaining fixtures

Western Conference final:

Philadelphia Union vs New York City FC - 4pm ET, 4 December 2021, Subaru Park

Eastern Conference final:

Portland Timbers vs Real Salt Lake - 6:30pm ET, 5 December 2021, Providence Park

MLS Cup final:

TBC vs TBC - 11 December 2021, venue TBC*

*The MLS Cup final will be the hosted by the team that has the higher ranking in the Supporters’ Shield, a combined Eastern and Western Conference table used to determine which MLS side has the best overall regular-season record.


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