Unlike most other nations, there is no system of merit-based promotion and relegation in the American and Canadian pyramids, meaning that the champions of USL-1 could not move up to Major League Soccer and, similarly, the worst teams in MLS were not in danger of being demoted to USL-1. However, some USL-1 teams had in the past chosen to take voluntary relegation to a lower level of the USL system, often to reduce operating costs, while teams had also decided to move up to USL-1 after finding success at the lower levels.
The top seven teams advanced to the playoff tournament, with the Commissioner’s Cup winner (regular season champion) receiving a bye into the semi-finals. Each round consisted of two legs, the lower seeded team hosting the first leg, and the higher seed hosting the second. Prior to 2009, the final was played as a single leg at the higher seeds stadium. After the first legs were completed, the lowest remaining seed played the Commissioners Cup winner, and the higher seeds played each other. The highest remaining seed hosted the penultimate game of the Finals. The playoffs started the week after the completion of the regular season, and typically ended in mid-October.