The second round of the MLS Cup Playoffs has the two higher seeds in each conference hosting their opponents from last week’s match-ups. In the four matches from last week, the home teams either tied or won leaving the seeded favorites with work to do if they hope to advance to the conference finals. The path seems more difficult in the Eastern Conference, where the Columbus Crew and the Chicago Fire each trail in their aggregate-goal series by a one-goal deficit. Starting tonight at Crew Stadium and ending Saturday in Bridgeview, Illinois, the pressure is on for the two best teams in the east.
In the Western Conference, the higher seeds faired much better in their first matches. Both the Houston Dynamo and the Los Angeles Galaxy earned hard-fought draws against their respective opponents the Seattle Sounders FC and Chivas USA. The schedule makers treat us to a doubleheader on Sunday, with Robertson Stadium doing their best Qwest Field impersonation — but splashed in orange — for the second seeded Dynamo, and the Home Depot Center hosting the two Los Angeles clubs. Because of the drawn first games, these return leg contests are winner-take-all.
On the surface, it is fair to say that the playoff results have been as expected. Predictably defensively minded match-ups in the Western Conference were borne out in Seattle and Los Angeles. The scoreless draw at Qwest Field seems to favor Houston going into their game this Sunday, but they will need to keep in mind that last year saw them in the same situation, and they went on to lose 3-0 to the New York Red Bulls. No one in Dynamo Orange wants to repeat their home collapse of 2008; the team will not take this year’s opponent as lightly. Back at the HDC, host Chivas USA and the Galaxy did eventually draw 2-2, but not because of good attacking soccer, rather as a result of poor defending. Take away the brutal displays at both ends of the field and that match was evenly played throughout. The total defensive calamity should not be repeated the second time around as the Galaxy assumes the title as “home team.”
The Eastern Conference week one results were equally predictable. Neither host dominated play, but did enough to finish with one-goal advantages heading into their return leg matches. Real Salt Lake preserved a 1-0 victory over the scoring-challenged Crew — no goals in nearly four straight games — in a rather pedestrian affair. Columbus returns home with a line-up that should include reigning league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto and playmaker Alejandro Moreno, both missing from the first game, making the prospects for the Crew that much more promising. The Chicago Fire returns home after having surrendered a one-goal lead to the New England Revolution in a 2-1 loss at Gillette Stadium. They will need to halt the momentum of the Revs with a win at Toyota Park to keep their season alive.
Will all four higher seeds advance to the MLS Cup playoff semi-finals this week? Based on the results of the last week, the answer appears to be an unequivocal “yes.” However, history tells us otherwise, as a dramatic number of higher seeded teams have lost to their lower ranked opponents in these aggregate-goal home-and-home playoff series since they were instituted by MLS in 2003. Out of the 24 series in the past six years, the higher seed has advanced in just 15 — a winning percentage of 63%. The prospects for the higher seeds get even worse when looking at the specific circumstances the four teams are in this year. 7 out of 12 times (58%) the higher team survived after losing the first leg of the series, and 4 out of 7 times (57%) the higher team advanced after a first match draw. If the past is a good predictor of the future, that unequivocal “yes” becomes an obvious “no.” Only in that first year (2003) did all four higher seeds manage to make it to their conference finals, and as many as three higher seeds have been eliminated (2005) after the first round.
So, there has to be an upset this year, right? As we’ve discussed, history tells us this is most likely. The playoff adage that “anything can happen” should be better phrased as “something will happen.” I would argue that the playoff seedings are essentially meaningless given that the higher seed does not really gain an advantage in the current playoff structure. Sure, they get to host the second game of the series in front of their home fans, which could include any necessary extra-time and penalty kick shootouts, but that doesn’t significantly outweigh the fact that they still play at the lower seed in game one. In fact, because team parity is the rule in MLS, it should come as no surprise that the higher seed has survived only 63% of the time since 2003.
Given that the higher seeds in the Eastern Conference have the more difficult path to the semi-finals due to their one-goal deficits, the most likely team to suffer at the hands of a lower seed is the Chicago Fire. For this, look no further than their home record over the 2009 regular season. The Fire weren’t much more than an average team at Toyota Park, gaining only 5 wins out of 15 home matches. Needing a win on Saturday to keep their season alive, the Fire will need to buck that regular season trend. Also not in favor of the Fire is their scoring output at home, just 16 goals (and 17 goals allowed) in 2009. The statistics suggest a New England result in this match-up, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While I still expect the other higher seeds to advance, including my overall pick for the MLS Cup — the Houston Dynamo — the Fire look to be the odd team out this postseason. Sorry Chicago, better luck in 2010.