Storylines abound in the run-up to the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs, but perhaps none will be more visible than the change in format for this season — a single leg knockout tournament with home field advantages for higher seeds.
It means all teams — even ones as good as LAFC, NYCFC, Seattle Sounders and Atlanta United — are just 90 minutes away from seeing their seasons come to a screeching halt.
“It’s a different tournament now,” said Atlanta United center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez last week. “We need to be focusing on the passion, how we play, the intensity, the aggressivity [sic] how we play. Because if you make a mistake you go home. We need to be [aware of that] and try to fix the mistakes as possible and try to do the best.”
Love it or hate it, the single-leg format will force a winner to be determined from the match, therefore giving both teams impetus to create the goals they’ll need. It’s not completely new for MLS of course, which has had a knockout round among the No. 3-6 seeds in years prior. The new format seems to widen the field of potential winners, making it even easier for a top seed to slip up, right?
Maybe not so fast. This study by American Soccer Analysis found, based on their modeling, that the new playoff format will increase the top seed’s probability of reaching the MLS Cup final by 14 percent. A big reason why is the strength of home field advantage that exists in MLS.
“I think if we’re playing at home, here, I prefer a one-off to take care of business,” said Justin Meram, referring to Atlanta United’s 12-2-3 home record this season. Atlanta United has only one loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium since April 20. Gonzalez Pirez agreed with his teammate, but not before having a quick laugh at the way things have panned out for Atlanta in the past.
“When we played only one game, we lost against Columbus. When we played home and away, we were champions,” joked Gonzalez Pirez. “For me, if we’re playing at home, I like one game because you have the advantage... We’ll try to take the advantage... and try to win the game.”
Adding intrigue for Atlanta United is that they’ll face off against the same opponent they closed out the season against in the New England Revolution.
“If you look at last year, we threw away the supporters shield in the last game of the season. That certainly was a kick up the backside going in to the playoffs,” said Brad Guzan after Atlanta’s Decision Day win. “Today was a little bit of a different feeling in the sense that we sent a message going in two week’s time. When they come back,it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be even harder.
“It’s going to be a playoff game,” Guzan added. “In the playoffs, anything can happen. It means nothing where you finish. It’s one and done. You’ve got to fight for your lives and fight for every inch that you get come playoff time.”