The 2012 MLS Cup final will be a rematch of last year’s final: LA Galaxy versus Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center, the same venue as last year. If that’s not remarkable enough, then consider that these two teams finished fourth (LA) and fifth (Houston) in their respective conferences during the regular season.
What does this mean? Well for one, it turns out that home field advantage wasn’t much of an advantage at all.
Sporting Kansas City in the East and San Jose Earthquakes in the West won their conferences by five and nine points respectively, giving them home field advantage right to the final. Both teams had strong regular seasons, especially at home, which they would be relying on come playoff time. However, both SKC and San Jose would lose their first round matchups to much lower seeded teams in the playoffs and see their season come to an abrupt end. Kansas City had 10 more points than Houston and San Jose had 12 more points than LA.
When you see what LA and Houston have done it is easy to discredit the regular season. Of course, here in Vancouver we painfully remember the eighth-seeded LA Kings powering past everything in their way to win the Stanley Cup.
So what does home field advantage mean in a two-leg series? Well, you get to play the second match at home, which means you know what you have to do to win in front of your crowd, and if it goes to extra time or penalties you have the advantage of playing on your home field.
The problem with this is that you really need to get a favorable result on the road in the first game so you don’t have too much of a mountain to climb in the return leg (see DC United and Seattle).
You also have to consider that the team that has home field advantage has to travel twice. First to their away match, then back home. The lower seeded team gets to stay at home for the first match, without traveling, and then embark on a single trip for the second game.
DC United were a strange exception this season. They were the higher seeded team, but due to Hurricane Sandy they ended up hosting the first game in DC, with the return leg moved to New York. And guess what? That ended up working out just fine for United, as they had a 1-1 draw in the first leg before winning a thrilling 1-0 game in the second leg.
In the end, DC would fall in the Conference final when the tables were turned and they hosted the second leg after being faced with a 3-1 deficit from the first game in Houston. It proved too much to overcome.
Same thing happened to Seattle. They fell 3-0 to LA Galaxy on the road. A valiant effort saw them pull within a goal at 2-0 in the second leg, but a penalty kick awarded to the Galaxy broke their backs.
You could say that Houston is a team built for the playoffs and that the Galaxy have the best talent in the league, and that’s why they are preparing to battle for the MLS Cup again.
But the results of the MLS Cup playoffs are sure make teams think about how they approach the long and hard MLS season and what is the best route for progressing into the postseason.