Is Hosting The 2nd Leg A Home Field Disadvantage In The MLS Playoffs?

Bob Levey

Of the six two-legged playoff series this year in MLS, the team that hosted the first leg advanced each time. So where is the advantage?

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, the rain and wind that pummeled New Jersey forced the postponement of the MLS playoff match that the New York Red Bulls were supposed to host that weekend. Even though D.C. United had finished ahead of the Red Bulls in the standings and earned the right to host the decisive second leg of the series, the first match would be moved to D.C., with New York getting the sudden opportunity to play the final match at Red Bull Arena.

When the swap happened, Ben Olsen was dismissive. Olsen wasn't going to let the presumptive loss of home field advantage affect his team's confidence. He didn't care.

He should have cared. He should have been thrilled. Because apparently it's actually an advantage to play the second game on the road.

The 2012 MLS Playoffs have now been narrowed down to just two teams remaining. Those teams, the LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo, each had to play more matches than any other playoff teams. They each had to participate in a play-in match en route to the MLS Cup Final, and they each had to go on the road for the second match of both playoff series.

So if the Galaxy and Dynamo had such a difficult road to reach the Final, how did they do it? Maybe because going on the road in the second leg of a playoff series isn't actually all that difficult. Maybe it's actually an advantage.

Under the new format this year, there were six two-legged series in the MLS playoffs. The team with the worse regular season record won five of them. The lone exception was D.C. United, beating the Red Bulls in that weather-plagued series in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a series in which United's supposed home field advantage was stolen away by that evil storm.

In reality, United may have gained an advantage because all six of the teams that hosted the first leg advanced out of their playoff ties. Just like the Dynamo had an advantage over the Eastern Conference leaders of Sporting Kansas City. Just like the Galaxy had an advantage over the Supporters' Shield winning San Jose Earthquakes.

Why does the team that hosts the first leg have such an advantage? It's hard to say. It might be because the pressure is off in the first leg, and the home team gets the chance to play its usual soccer style while the visitors tend to play more conservatively. Maybe it's because it's easier to sit back and defend in the second leg on the road if you achieve a lead in your own stadium. Both of those elements seemed to benefit the Dynamo in their playoff victory over United last week.

We've already talked about how United failed to advance because the roster was overpowered by injuries and suspensions. Really though, United failed to advance because they finished the season with a better record than the Dynamo. They failed to advance because there weren't any storms to rearrange the schedule this time around.

So if the playoff format is the same in 2013, we should probably root for United to finish in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Or else we should just root for United to win the Supporters' Shield and then have hurricanes hit the opposing playoff cities every other week.

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