MLS Playoffs - Legs, and how to use them

We have lost four more in 2016 - the first victims of the play-in round, or, as I like to call it, "killing floor."

This is my playoff ideal, by the way.  One game at the home of the higher seed.  Ninety minutes and a spinoff.  Grill or be grilled.  It's also the way we choose our champion - at least for the moment.  But I suppose we'll get to that later.

THE KANSAS CITY WIZARDS - I know, it's been five years, I should drop this - lost on a couple of bad calls to Seattle, our new MLS Cup contender darlings.  I was thisclose to saying Seattle was in a lot of trouble, based on their inability to put away a mediocre team at home without the help of bad calls.  You don't need me to remind you this team hasn't really replaced Nemeth, and you probably don't need me to say that Zusi and Besler didn't become the international stars we were hoping for during US national team qualifying the last cycle.  But if you must be a team in a holding pattern, it's much better to be one in a great stadium with an inspired fan base.

Which does not bring us to DC UNITED.  My heart absolutely sank when I heard stadium negotiations took another damn setback.  Sports construction within the city limits of major metropolitan areas are always going to be fraught with fraughtness, and that's fine.  But I've said for literally years now that this team isn't doing a damn thing until they at least break ground on a new playpen.  The other fond hope I have for DC United is that residents (or at least long-term transients) finally get sick of following that idiotic racist NFL team and embrace the sport of the people.  I have all the time in the world for Ben Olsen, I really do.  But it's been five seasons and change, and the ownership isn't sticking with him because they believe in the process.  That's not the way to jazz up the medium-term-suffering fanbase....except God knows who'd they replace him with.

REAL SALT LAKE stumbled into the playoffs and were promptly stomped into the ground.  There are lots of little things we can nitpick the Deseret Foxes over - giving away Borchers too soon, bringing back Olave too late, that sort of thing - but I think there's a bit of an inferiority complex here.  I don't know if this team believes it can carry what Lagerwey and Kreis accomplished, especially in the teeny market.  And yeah, the scouting is going to have to regain and maintain top-tier status.  But the fan base is definitely there now, and "The Team Is The Star" is not merely an irritating cliché.  Let the Los Angeles teams overpay for Premiership pensioners.

The PHILADELPHIA UNION made the playoffs because, per MLS rules, someone had to.

Vale, brave warriors.  Four more will join you next Sunday. 

Who will it be?  It'll be fun finding out - I adore the marathon MLS playoff death rallies they have now.  So what if we're competing against the NFL - people can check in and out if they want during NFL ads.  Millions and millions of NFL ads.  Whoever came up with consecutive weeks of Decision Sundays replacing things like gridiron and church?  The hero we need and deserve.

Shame about the legs.

I say this every year, because it's true every year.  The two-legged playoff was invented to level the playing field - in European club competition, where everyone was theoretically an equal champion.  MLS, like strawberries and pumpkins, has seeds.  Using a two-legged playoff diminishes the advantage of a better regular season - something that does matter in the play-in round, and matters a lot in MLS Cup.

Sadly, I expect MLS to normalize the format in favor of two legs all the way through.  Works in Mexico, in the sense that the sport hasn't gone bankrupt, so obviously it will work here.  And two leg playoffs makes certain that Seattle gets their big money home game. 

So let's talk about how these things have shaken out over the years.  I have made a spreadsheet covering the sixty two-legged series from 2003 to 2015.  It's clunky and ugly and I'm ashamed of it, which is why I'm not posting it.  You are more than welcome to make one of your own, though, if you doubt my feeble statistical skills (remember that DC was the higher seed in 2012 because of the snowstorm).  Here is what I've gleaned from my research:

This bit of trivia doesn't apply this year, but it stood out like a sore thumb on a snake.  You would think that the lower seed opening the series with a home draw is a quick way to a painful exit.  In sixty series, the home team has opened with a draw 16 times.  And out of those sixteen times, seven times the team at a disadvantage went into the other guys' house and won the series.  Once after PKs (Colorado at Dallas, 2005), and once with away goals (Seattle in 2014, also over Dallas), and once maybe because the higher seed was on the road in game two (DC in 2012, like we said).

Dallas fans, this isn't going to get better for you.  I'd watch the Cubs and Indians instead, and remember that trends are made to be bucked.

We didn't have any road wins in the first leg, which means there is some suspense.  Road teams have taken the away advantage 15 times, and gone through 12.  One of the three exceptions was on penalty kicks - 2006 Rapids against Dallas again.  (To rub it in, had the away goals rule been in effect, Dallas would have advanced in that series.  Sorry, guys.)

Now, let's look at scenarios that apply this year.

Eighteen times before this season, the first game has ended with a one goal victory for the home team.  It's up to twenty now, thanks to Montreal and Los Angeles.  What's likely to happen?  As you might have guessed - who the hell knows.  Higher seeds in this scenario are an unimpressive 10-8.  Once the home team advanced after extra time (Columbus vs. Montreal last year), once the decision was made by away goals (Los Angeles against Salt Lake in 2014)

Since we can be more specific here, 12 times before this year, the home team won the first game 1-0, just like Montreal and LA did this year.  I assume that both Montreal and LA are in serious trouble by not winning by more, but the lower seed in this scenario advanced seven times out of those twelve.  And twice the higher seed had to win via penalty kicks.  So the Impact and Galaxy are in much better shape than you would think.  The Red Bulls are 13-2-2 at home this year, the Rapids are 11-0-6.  By MLS standards, Montreal and LA aren't bad on the road.  Tossups all around, if you ask me.

As for when the first game is won by the home team by more than one goal...let's see...carry the two....square root of three....yup.  NYCFC and Dallas are totally screwed.

We've had eleven multi-goal home wins to open two legged series, and the lower seed has followed through nine times.  The last nine times.  The last time the higher seed overturned the result by an even bigger home win?  Kansas City in 2004 over San Jose.  San Jose did it to the Galaxy the year before.  So ever since that team moved to Houston, winning your first game by more than one goal has been a free pass to the final.

Yes, when home teams win their games by more than one goal, sure, they almost always do advance.  But the higher seed doesn't usually overturn a big loss, at least not since 2004.  What tends to happen is, teams good enough to win convincingly at home are good enough to force the result on the road. 

Toronto is actually one of two teams in the league at .500 on the road anyway, so they're in fabulous position.  (The other is, ironically, NYCFC - or was, since they have now dipped one game below .500 on the road this year in MLS, and that will probably cost them their season.)  Dallas is much better at home and Seattle this year was junk on the road...but teams that have won by three goals in either leg are, you will not be shocked to hear, perfect so far.

So - two nailbiters, two foregone conclusions.  I think the Red Bulls and Rapids advance along with Seattle and Toronto.  But then, I think a lot of things.