MLS' striking home-field advantage all but dooms knockout-round visitors
In the third minute of stoppage time of the final game of the season, San Jose Earthquakes forward Marco Urena put a pass from teammate Chris Wondolowski past Minnesota United goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth and into the back of the net. The tally near the death sent 18,000 fans at Avaya Stadium into histrionic celebration and gave the home side new life as it vaulted the Quakes over FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake into the sixth and final playoff slot.
For the first time since 2012, the club will appear in the Major League Soccer postseason. Its run will almost certainly end quickly.
All the last-minute heroics earned Chris Leitch's squad a date with the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday at BC Place. Since MLS instituted the knockout round in 2011, only three teams have prevailed on the road: the New York Red Bulls (2011), the Houston Dynamo (2012) and the Montreal Impact (2016). Each of the other 13 squads ended their playoff runs with a whimper away from home. Chances are the Earthquakes will suffer the same fate.
Away games are not kind to MLS teams -- and never worse than in 2017.
The prevalence of home-field advantage is not a new talking point in the domestic league. In 2000, home teams earned 1.82 points per game, a remarkably high figure. (By comparison, the big four European leagues range from 1.54 points per game in the English Premier League to La Liga's 1.72 points per game.) That figure declined slowly for a decade, reaching 1.65 points per game in 2011 before spiking the past six years.
In 2017, home teams earned 1.94 points per game. Toronto FC, on the short list for best team ever, was the only club with a winning record on the road, while the Colorado Rapids, the Houston Dynamo, the New England Revolution and the Philadelphia Union managed just a single win each away from home.
The 12 teams that reached the playoffs were even better, averaging 2.16 points per game they hosted. That figure easily outpaces the past few seasons: 2.03 in 2014, 2.04 in 2015 and 1.93 in 2016. No squad that reached the 2017 postseason lost more than three games at home, with four -- Houston, the Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City and TFC -- losing a single fixture. (The Dynamo's 12-1-4 home record vs. their 1-9-7 record on the road would be the league's most remarkable split, were it not for the Revolution's 12-2-3 vs. 1-13-3. The key to making the playoffs: drawing on the road.)
The main takeaway is that if you're the fifth or sixth seed in either conference, good luck getting through to the next round. The Dynamo's 2012 team is the only squad to reach MLS Cup as a road team in the knockout round since the format changed in 2011.
As teams go further into the playoffs, the format limits the effect of home-field advantage. Since 2011, both teams have gotten a home game in the conference semifinals and finals, with the lower seed hosting the first one. In the semis, the lower seed has advanced eight of 16 times, including three out of four in 2016, when those four teams won their home games by a collective 7-0 scoreline. Since 2014, just two of the six higher seeds in the conference finals have gone on to play in MLS Cup.
Interestingly, while only one No. 1 seed (LA Galaxy, 2011) has reached MLS Cup since 2011, six No. 2 seeds have. That's a telling indication of how to achieve playoff success in MLS. The conventional wisdom is that it's better to get hot going into the playoffs than to be good all season, considering playing at peak potential for an entire season is unsustainable.
Teams that tread water during most of the year, only to get hot going into the playoffs, could easily end up as a second seed, moving up their conference but not all the way to the top. The two seed doesn't have the pressure of being the one seed, it misses having to play in the knockout round, and it gets a home game as the second leg in the conference semis. For the past six seasons, that has been a recipe to reach MLS Cup. (If you're a Toronto supporter, this might be concerning, as the team that has been so good all year tailed off a bit toward the end of the season.)
The ever-increasing home-field advantage makes it harder for lower seeds to win MLS Cup, and it's going to get harder going forward. The league is exploring a change in playoff format beginning in 2018 that would see the adoption of single-elimination matches throughout. The higher seed will host every game, giving a significant advantage to the squad that had a stronger regular season.
If you're the sixth seed in your conference, congrats on reaching the postseason. But don't expect to stick around all that long. You don't have to cancel that beach vacation you scheduled during MLS Cup.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.