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2021 MLS Cup final format & rules: extra time, penalties, substitutions, VAR

Portland Timbers and New York City FC go head to head for the 2021 championship in Saturday's MLS Cup final at Providence Park.

2021 MLS Cup final format & rules: extra time, penalties, substitutions, VAR
Omar VegaGetty Images

Portland Timbers host New York City FC in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, as the two teams battle it out to succeed Columbus Crew as league champions.

NYCFC to make MLS Cup final debut

For Timbers, who are at home because they have a better 2021 regular-season record than NYCFC, it will be the franchise’s third appearance in the fixture and an opportunity to win their second league title, following 2015’s MLS Cup final victory over Columbus.

Portland reached the 2021 MLS Cup final by defeating Real Salt Lake 2-0 in the Western Conference final last Saturday, before NYCFC booked their ticket to the championship game the following day, beating Philadelphia Union 2-1 to win the Eastern Conference title.

This will be New York City’s first MLS Cup final since their founding six years ago; indeed, the Boys in Blue had never previously made it as far as the conference finals.

2021 MLS Cup final format

Extra time and penalties if needed

Saturday’s match at Providence Park will be a single-leg tie that must be decided on the day: extra time and, if needed, penalties will be used if the scores remain level after 90 minutes.

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

If the Timbers and NYCFC 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 teams remain level, they will take additional rounds of sudden-death penalties until one scores and the other misses.

Of the 25 MLS Cup finals played so far since the league was established in 1996, 10 have gone to extra time, with four - in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016 - advancing to penalty kicks. Seattle Sounders' 5-4 shoot-out triumph over Toronto FC five years ago, which followed a 0-0 draw at BMO Field, is the last time the final was not completed in 90 minutes.

New York City FC needed penalties to beat New England Revolution in the 2021 Eastern Conference semi-finals.
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New York City FC needed penalties to beat New England Revolution in the 2021 Eastern Conference semi-finals.David Butler IIUSA TODAY Sports

In MLS' early years, the golden goal was used in extra time, with the 1996, 2001 and 2002 finals all decided by the sudden-death rule, but it has since been scrapped.

Five substitutions

Portland and NYCFC will be able to make up to five changes each, across a maximum of three substitution windows. They will also be allowed two concussion substitutions, which do not count towards the number of substitution windows used.

The teams will not be given any additional substitutions if the game goes to extra time.


The video-assistant-referee (VAR) system will be used in the 2021 MLS Cup final.

MLS Cup final: times and how to watch

The 2021 MLS Cup final between Portland Timbers and New York City FC will take place at Providence Park, Portland, on Saturday 11 December 2021 at 3pm ET/12 noon PT.

In the US, television viewers will be able to watch the match on the following channels and online platforms: TUDN USA, TUDN.com, the TUDN App, UniMás, Univision NOW, ABC and the ABC App. Alternatively, you can follow live-text coverage of the game with AS USA.

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