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“Win at home, tie on the road” — a look at MLS point trends

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

“Win at home, tie on the road.”

It’s an old Major League Soccer adage used as a quick-glance barometer of a team’s success in league play. But just how true is the concept and what does it mean for this edition of RSL? The Claret and Cobalt currently sit in fifth place in the a competitive Western Conference, and recently feel like they have spent more time punching above their weight than anything after a strong start to the year. As the 2022 MLS season has now nearly played a third of its scheduled games, let’s take a closer look at the club’s current point standing and league point trends.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Nashville SC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Historical Playoff Point Averages

Since 2015, when Major League Soccer expanded the MLS Cup Playoffs from five teams to six teams, the average points for the lowest seeded Western Conference playoff team has been exactly 48 points earned over the 34 game season. This average has held true for both the 2019 and 2021 seasons, when the league expanded the postseason even further to include seven teams from each conference. The 2020 Covid-shortened season is a bit of an anomaly, as playoff teams were determined by each team’s points-per-game average and 18 total teams were included in the postseason instead of the normal 14. Even so, the seventh seed in the Western Conference that year, Los Angeles FC, finished the season with a 1.45 ppg average, which trends very closely to the 1.41 ppg average that comes from earning 48 points over a full 34 season.

MLS Home Field Advantage

For years now, home field advantage in MLS has been noted and discussed at length, as it is incredibly difficult to win on the road in Major League Soccer. How difficult exactly? A 2015 Princeton study found that MLS home teams were more likely to win (not just earn points) than any other home team in the top 5 US professional sports leagues. Further analysis of professional soccer leagues around the world show that home teams in MLS are likely to come away with three points 51 percent of the time, while their European counterparts win 44% of the time, and hosts in Mexico and Argentina are only slightly higher at 45%. Even further, the visiting team in Europe on average wins 31% of the time, compared to Mexico/Argentina visitors at 29%, but MLS teams only win on the road 24% of the time.

So far for the 2022 season, in 141 total matches the MLS home side have performed slightly higher than average, with wins coming 52% of the time and road victories matching the normal 24% likelihood.

The data shows the concept behind the unwritten rule is definitely real, simply because winning at home is by far and away the most likely outcome of any MLS game. Taking that a step further, with points so hard to come by in MLS when travel is included, any result is a positive result for the away side.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Tracking Point Trends

So where does all that leave RSL? The 34-game MLS season is setup with 17 home and away games, but with 13 inner-conference away trips and four cross-conference games instead of having the traditional home and away model of other professional soccer leagues. The 17 home games mean you can potentially earn 51 points by going undefeated at home, three more than the lowest playoff seed average of 48 points referenced earlier. With away points being so hard to come by, any result on the road add to the likelihood of making the playoffs as long as you don’t lose points at home.

Using 48 potential points as the baseline and 51 home points as the preferred outcome, RSL has a small wiggle room of three points available to lose at home while still making the playoffs, but those points can be earned back by getting points on the road. Through 11 games so far, RSL has held strong at home, going 3-1-0, the only blemish being the 2-2 draw against Toronto (which does make the late goal given up that game feel a little more painful), meaning RSL has only lost two potential home points on the season thus far.

As for the road, RSL have done very well in the first section of the season, even just going 1-3-3 in their seven road matches. The magic, snow-driven comeback in New England was a hard earned three points when none were expected, while the club also grinded out three more points via draws at Houston, Colorado, and Portland for an impressive six points on the road to date. Leaving RSL with up to seven points of playoff leverage heading into the summer stretch (3 potential points to lose at home, minus 2 lost vs Toronto, plus 6 road points thus far).

While the 6-0 loss at NYCFC was definitely forgettable and the losses at SKC and Nashville were disappointing, coming out with no points was actually the most likely outcome for those matches anyway. Exactly how those losses took place is a bit of a different story, but at least in terms of points expected heading into those contests, none were lost in those opportunities.

Looking Ahead

RSL’s road heavy start to the year should also pay off at the end of the season, when the points matter the most. Their next 12 games feature seven at home and five on the road, before their final stretch of 11 games will have seven home matches compared to just four away trips.

New signings and healthy returns should only help the team improve in terms of play and quality. The squad’s US Open Cup loss definitely was a disaster, but the one silver lining is the club now won’t have to play potential midweek matches that wouldn’t have an impact on league play. The missed opportunity for hardware stings, but at least the worst home loss of the season didn’t impact RSL’s playoff positioning and now the potential for added games won’t impact it either.

The month of April in particular didn’t feel too kind overall, as injuries have mounted up, the NYCFC and Open Cup losses happened back to back, and the only win came in ugly fashion against the Galaxy, but overall RSL was actually par for the standard MLS course despite the setbacks. The club’s overall form is still worth discussing, but thankfully with all of the growing pains and injury transitions, they haven’t dropped too many points at home while also earning more than enough road points back to cover their losses along the way.

All in all, as long as the RioT remains a fortress, RSL has a postseason chance. Earning results on the road make that outcome even more likely, and a “win at home, draw on the road” mentality is a very effective way to determine MLS sustainability and success.