MLS announces changes for 2012 season

Major League Soccer announced changes to next season's competition format Sunday ahead of the MLS Cup final, including rewarding the best finalist with home field advantage in the 2012 MLS Cup.

The Los Angeles Galaxy, who had the best regular season record, host Sunday's MLS Cup against the Houston Dynamo, but The Home Depot Center was selected as a neutral venue. Starting next year, the finalist with the best record during the regular season will host the MLS Cup.

MLS also announced the playoffs will again include 10 teams, only next season, five teams from each conference will be guaranteed to advance. This year, five teams from each conference qualified, but only the top three automatically.

The fourth- and fifth-place finishers will play a single knockout match in the first round, but the conference semifinals and conference finals will both be two-game, aggregate-goal series. The format is almost the same as 2011 but the conference finals were single games.

Over the past few seasons, teams from the Eastern and Western conferences were often placed in the other conference's postseason bracket, but the new format will eliminate that possibility.

"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," said MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez.

The Montreal Impact, who join MLS in 2012 as an expansion team, will play in the Eastern Conference, which will have 10 teams next year while the West will have the same nine.

The league will use an unbalanced schedule that will see Western teams play 24 games against their own conference (three matches against each team), with 10 out-of-conference matches.

Eastern teams will play 25 games against opponents from their division (seven opponents will be played three times, and the other two twice), with the nine remaining games against the Western teams.

The home and away matches in all the previously mentioned formats will change year-to-year. The regular season will again begin in March and end in October.

"We have established a fair and compelling format for the 2012 season. This regular season will include more games between regional rivals and less total travel than we have seen in recent years," Rodriguez said.

"Because of the wide geographic distribution of MLS clubs, this structure should improve the quality of play, while continuing to give every club an equal chance of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs."