Two Major League Soccer teams carry 1-0 leads into Central America tonight, the road leg of their CONCACAF Champions League preliminary round ties. Toronto will try to build on Chad Barrett’s goal at BMO when they take on Amado Guevara and Motagua, while Sounders FC is in San Salvador, staking a Fredy Montero goal to their lead. With the two clubs facing short-rest and long travel turnarounds from weekend league matches, Seattle and Toronto supporters are left to wonder: How safe is their 1-0 lead after the home leg?
Going back to 2000 (when the competition was called the Champions Cup), six teams have won initial home legs 1-0. Those results have not been precursors to future success. The team that traveled for the second leg up 1-0 advanced three times, posting a 0-4-2 record along the way.
Still, that’s only six ties. We may be better served with a bigger sample.
If you look to Copa Libertadores and UEFA Champions League, you get a slightly more positive record for teams carrying a 1-0 advantage on the road. Going back to 2000, teams identical advantages in the South American and European competitions have advanced 51 out of the 88 times (9 out of 20 in Copa Lib, 42 out of 68 in Champions League), outright winning the second leg 22 times. While these competitions have slightly different structures their CONCACAF counterpart (structures that often put the perceived inferior team on the road for the second leg), the numbers hint a 1-0 home win is slightly better than merely holding serve.
Intuitively, this makes sense on two levels. First, the better team tends to win matches, and while a 1-0 home win hints at a closer match on the road, home field advantage is not always determinative. If you won the first match, there’s a good chance you’re the better team. Second, going into the second leg with the lead gives you the strategic advantage of being able to prioritize defending, and while it could be argued that the other team knows they have to attack, they are not absolved the need to prevent goals. If anything, that need is heightened.
And that brings us back to Seattle, Toronto, and trying to discern whether each team will be one of the just under 60 percent that advance.
Toronto, playing the night’s first match in Honduras, has to be concerned. They started a full team last week against a Motagua side that had not played a competitive match since late spring. While Barrett’s early goal gave TFC hope of running-up a safe lead, Motagua looked slightly better throughout the rest of match. The visitors’ rust showed, though, as the ease with which they were able to get down the flanks was betrayed in the final third. Slightly mishit crosses bouncing off defenders, targeting forwards lacking a burst in the box - hints that another week of work could see George Welcome and Motagua finishing some of those chances. In addition, allthough Toronto only played Dwayne De Rosario and Barrett for half of their weekend match in Kansas City, the bulk of their team is still coming off short rest. All this against a Motagua team that should have been the outright favorite going into the tie.
A bigger concern for Toronto is their road record. Only four of their 23 points this season have come on the road: a May win over San Jose and a draw two weeks earlier at Los Angeles. The good news for TFC supporters: those are the two longest road trips of the year Toronto, and if distance from Ontario helps determine the team’s success, Motagua’s going to get routed.
Seattle has a slightly more legitimate reason for optimism. Last week’s 1-0 scorelines may have failed to impress, but it was a result crafted with Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani and Osvaldo Alonso out of the starting lineup. While those three (and their teammates) will be dealing with the fatigue of travel after Saturday’s match at San Jose, the Sounders can go into San Salvator knowing they’re capable of getting a result without full matches from their stars. While Montero did end up scoring the lucky goal and Alonso, replacing Pete Vagenas, played almost the full match, Seattle out-shot Metapán 15-2 while holding something back.
Seattle is a good bet to advance to group stage, but if MLS is going to avoid last year’s indignity of having two teams eliminated in the preliminary round, Toronto likely needs an unexpected result at Motagua. Los Angeles, the third MLS side active in this round, is down 4-1 going to Puerto Rico tomorrow, meaning TFC will need to couple a Seattle win with an upset of their own to get four MLS teams into group play.