Home field advantage is a real thing in sports. And it impacts soccer more than any other major sport. Freakonomics argues that home field advantage is primarily driven by refereeing decisions as the raucous crowds have a conscious or subconscious impact on the referee when he goes to make difficult decisions. In soccer where the referee has greater latitude to make highly judgmental decisions that significantly impact the game, homefield advantage is felt the heaviest:
More interestingly, homefield advantage is greater in MLS than in the 5 major European leagues. In the major European leagues, home sides generally average 1.6+ ppg, but in MLS it is 1.8 ppg at home. This is a significant difference. Some have argued that the difficult travel times (unique to the larger US geography) and coach class commercial flights have a big impact here, but personally, I think it’s more likely that a similar homefield advantage exists in America as it does overseas (i.e. one that is primarily determined by important, judgmental referee decisions per Freakonomics), but that the parity of the league amplifies this effect. After all, if there is a very little difference between two teams facing one another on the field, any inherent advantage to the home side will show through more often. And this happens in MLS. And of course, MLS by design is a league of great parity relative to the European leagues. There’s a Salary Cap and some other interesting roster budget mechanisms that I’ve discussed before, several times. A league designed to be competitively even (like some other popular US-based professional leagues) should suffer more from the impact of unconsciously biased referee decisions. Perhaps this is why they are adopting V.A.R. ahead of the rest of the world. A post for another day.
But, here’s what I wanted to talk about: the Playoffs.
This week Sam Stejskal at FourFourTwo reported that MLS is considering an overhaul to the playoffs formatting due to scheduling issues where the FIFA international break slows down the “momentum” of the playoffs between the conference semi-final and final rounds. Currently those rounds are home and home double-legged affairs with away goals being the tiebreaker if aggregate scorelines are tied after 180 minutes plus stoppage. The reported proposal would swap out these double leg series for single elimination games hosted by the higher seeds. Stejskal mentions that the lower seeded team has won 8 of the 12 conference championship series since the current structure was introduced (this seems like a perfectly reasonable outcome over a sample as small as this if you buy that home and homes are mostly fair to both teams). Also posted at FourFourTwo acutally… while I was drafting this paragraph, is this piece by Steve Davis, who mentions that 11 out of 12 single elimination play-in games have gone to the home sides!
It is my opinion that switching to fully single elimination games hosted by the higher seeds would be a mistake because of the significant home field advantage in MLS, which is due to the significant level of parity in MLS (something the league purposefully designed). With teams averaging 1.8 points per game at home during the regular season and less than a point per game on the road during the regular season, these series would become largely “no contests” when that’s not what playoffs are supposed to be (my gut is that they would mirror the 11/12 play-in games going to the home team). Consider how few teams in MLS actually average more than 1.5 points per game (a favorable average) when playing away from home. Below is the full inventory of said teams over the past 5 years:
Also consider, how this stacks up to more traditional “Big 5 European Leagues” with traditionally less parity, in terms of percent of the league that averages 1.5+ ppg when playing away from home:
If no teams in your league can average a positive result when playing away, then why would you even hold a postseason in which every single round is laced with the most significant home field advantage observable in sports? It doesn’t make sense to me. Many out there want the team with the better record to be rewarded with an advantage in the playoffs. I understand this sentiment. After all, while playoffs are an exciting way to determine a league champion, the regular season should “matter” – especially in a sport like soccer, where the best leagues in the world determine their champion via a regular season table format. But my answer to these complaints is that first and foremost, the 2 best teams in each conference are absolutely rewarded something valuable, a bye – well earned rest, and the right not to be challenged by the 5th or 6th best teams in the conference. The third and fourth best teams are offered the significant homefield advantage vs the 6th and 5th best teams in the play-in rounds. But once we whittle the playoffs down to the top 4 teams in each conference, are we sure we want to try to reward incrementally different advantages to each of those 4 teams? In a league of parity and where the schedules aren’t balanced and New York Red Bulls and New York City FC have to play each other 3 times a year while Atlanta gets to face DCU (let’s not talk about it), if we were to award the 2nd best team a significant advantage over the 3rd place team in the East, would that even be fair? How certain would we be that the 2nd place team really earned this advantage? And as a reminder, the advantage given to the 2nd place team in this case would be massive based on the numbers mentioned above this post. From 2012-2016 in MLS, teams equivalent to the #4 seed in each conference average 1 point per game on the road against the league as a whole (including the basement dwellers of each conference). In short, it’s stacking the deck too much to let a team averaging 2.3 ppg at home (average top seed home record) host a team averaging 1 ppg on the road (avg #4 seed away record) and have this be the meat of your postseason (conference semi-finals and conference finals).
In summary, MLS created a league based mainly on the traditional American socialist-oligopoly high-parity sports model (NFL, NBA), and not on the free-market model (MLB, EPL, etc). In doing so, the league needs to accept that it values parity, and that having chosen a playoff-determines-champion model, the league needs to accept that it mainly* values the “what-happens-in-the-postseason-is-what-matters” concept. Those two ideas work decently well together, and the main benefit is that the playoffs are interesting because in most postseason games, they offer a visceral and tangible moment to distinguish two good teams that both want to be champion in a mostly just manner. While I understand that it feels right to give a team an edge for success it maintained over the long haul in the regular season, full homefield advantage in a single knockout game is too blunt of a tool to accomplish this, and further due to the nature of the league’s parity and the odd imbalanced scheduling, I’m not sure there’s much between 1-4 that would make me even want to dole out rewards/advantages in the playoffs between those teams. Just let the playoffs be what playoffs are supposed to be, taking the X number of best teams over the course of the year and facing them off against each other to determine who can come out on top when it matters most.
I realize that I didn’t address the MLS Cup Final being hosted by the higher seed as well as the play-in games being single elimination games hosted by the 3/4 seeds vs 5/6 seeds in each conference. For the record, it would be ideal to host the MLS Cup Final on neutral ground (like the Super Bowl), but I understand how ticket sales / tv optics impact this decision for a league that’s still trying to establish it’s place. It seems a necessary evil to me to make sure the Final is sold out and packed. Similarly, I think it’s fair to think of the 5th and 6th best teams in a conference as “wild cards” lucky enough to have made it into the playoffs (but also important that they’re allowed a path at all, given a league of high parity demands more teams be allowed entrance into the postseason).
Additional Material on Home Advantage:
- AmericanSoccerAnalysis on Home Advantage and Success Rates
- ASA on Distance Travelled and Home Advantage
- SBNation on Home Advantage across sports
- Freakonomics on where Home Advantage comes from
Sorry for the team-agnostic content this time around. Will try to do a catch up post soon on recent ATL UTD matches… there’s just so many of them, and some of them are weird.