By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 26, 2021) US Soccer Players – Playing at home means something in Major League Soccer. Whether it’s the partisan crowd filling the stands, the comfortable environment for the home team or the unfamiliar one for the visitors, or things unique to the field or the weather, playing in your building always counts. The travel deserves a mention as well.
When the playoffs arrive, it only makes sense that home-field advantage would play a big role in the results. Succeeding in the regular season is about more than just making the playoffs. It’s about finishing high enough to get at least a game at home. The higher that finish, the more home games you’ll get on the road to MLS Cup.
But playing at home doesn’t guarantee victory. These are the playoffs. Every match is a scrap, punctuated by physical play and a tendency towards small margins. The crown can give you a boost. Knowing the lay of the field can provide an edge. Fail to use those advantages to find the goal, and it might mean nothing in the end. For the top two seeds in the Western Conference, that truth is in stark evidence.
On Tuesday night, the Seattle Sounders failed to win a home game in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since 2014 when they fell to Real Salt Lake on penalty kicks. In that special way that seems to apply only to this sport, the result felt like a travesty of justice. Over 120 minutes, it was the Sounders who sent players forward in an effort to score. It was the Sounders who wanted the ball to begin those attacks. It was the Sounders that looked, even to fans of RSL, who were watching while simultaneously praying their club could just hold on, like the better team.
If that was the only thing that decided games, the Sounders would have advanced. Instead, it was the defending Western Conference champions struggling to play through the visitors’ resolute defending. RSL converted all of its penalties in the tiebreaker. The Sounders were out.
The shock is metered by one simple phrase: This is MLS. Upsets like the one RSL pulled off at Lumen Field don’t happen often, but they do happen. Seattle entered the game just a little more banged up than was comfortable, with big stage players like Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz on the bench to start the match. Winger Jordan Morris, undoubtedly a first-choice player when he’s healthy and fit, started for the first time in 2021.
None of that is why Seattle wasn’t able to score in regulation or extra time. To suggest that would rob RSL of the credit it deserves for a game plan that resulted in a landmark victory for a club amid a difficult period.
Interim Real Salt Lake boss Pablo Mastroeni threw a curve ball at the Sounders. During the regular season, Mastroeni’s team was known for its more open style of play, one that led to more goals scored but also to more goals conceded. They gave up 28 goals in its last 13 games and needed an extra-time goal from Damir Kreilach just to reach the playoffs. We could hardly blame the Sounders if they thought they’d find some joy in front of the goal on Tuesday.
Instead, and without key playmaker Albert Rusnak in the lineup due to a positive COVID-19 test. Mastroeni’s team went into a full defensive shell. They failed to register a single shot on goal in 120 minutes, becoming the first MLS team to manage that feat in the playoffs. Call it cynical, but it worked. Few outside of Seattle will remember the way the underdogs triumphed over the most successful MLS team of the last decade.
In Seattle, it was the dynasty taken down by the last team into the playoffs. In Colorado on Thanksgiving Day, it was the surprise package of the season finding that even altitude and a full house isn’t enough to keep the magic alive.
There’s not much to say about the Timbers 1-0 win over the Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Colorado came out flying and threatened the Portland goal with several first-half chances. However, Timbers keeper Steve Clark saved the ball and his team, pushing the game to a second stanza still goalless.
The second-half is where the Timbers rose to the challenge and showed off their playoff experience. The game balanced out as Colorado’s energy level dropped, and a true playoff stalemate ensued. In a knockout scenario, something as simple as a lucky bounce can decide who advances.
Larrys Mabiala’s goal came from just such a lucky bounce. The Rapids failed to clear a 90th-minute corner kick, and the Timbers center back pounced to slam the ball past William Yarbrough. It wasn’t so much skill as a combination of happenstance and instinct. Mabiala did what soccer players do. He kicked the ball.
A critical eye might find some fault with Rapids head coach Robin Fraser leaving his two leading scorers, Michael Barrios and Jonathan Lewis, on the bench to start the game. Perhaps a tactical tweak in the second-half might have opened up more space for his team to attack and deliver the goal.
Maybe the longer layoff did Colorado in. Since the league’s move to a knockout-style tournament for the postseason, teams with a bye facing an opponent with a previous playoff win have advanced just once in five tries. That might be the real antidote to the league’s intense home-field advantage. What MLS views as a reward for the top seed might be a hindrance. The New England Revolution are hoping that statistic, based on small sample size, doesn’t have any weight.
New England wants their home-field advantage to count for something. That’s the way this is supposed to work. The best team in the regular season is supposed to be advantaged. Otherwise, why put so much emphasis on topping the table?
Home field does mean something in Major League Soccer. Even the Sounders and Rapids bowing out of the playoffs doesn’t cut against that truth. Venue’s don’t decide games. They simply provide small comforts or discomforts that let the home team play just a little bit better. More often than not, that’s enough to decide the outcome. What it’s not is a guarantee, and now the top two finishers in the West will watch the rest of the playoffs from home.
More From Jason Davis:
- What does losing game 35 mean in MLS?
- Guaranteeing victory in the MLS playoffs
- The USMNT concludes an interesting November
- Preview: USMNT vs Mexico in the Octagonal
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow – ISIPhotos.com