Two of the best teams in MLS will face off in a Western Conference semifinal on Thursday. Oddly enough, they'll both be attempting to reverse some regrettable trends.
The LA Galaxy, who come into the game at Rio Tinto Stadium holding a 1-0 aggregate-goal lead, have been downright horrible on the road this year. How bad? Their 16 road points were tied for the fewest among playoff teams and worse than all but five teams in the league. But even more than the points are the 30 goals allowed. Just three teams in all of MLS gave up more road goals this year.
You'd think that would be lining up for a disastrous night, right?
Well, Real Salt Lake is going to be battling some demons of their own. Although RSL has held one of the strongest home-field advantages during Jason Kreis' tenure, they've also struggled in some of their biggest games at the stadium affectionately known as The Riot.
Since settling for a 1-1 tie against FC Dallas in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs, RSL has now failed to get the needed result in five of six elimination games against MLS-level competition. Perhaps the most painful was in the second leg of the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League championship when they lost 2-1 to Monterrey after earning tie on the road leg. In 2012, they needed a win over Herediano to advance to the CCL quarterfinals, but settled for a 0-0 tie. Later that year, they needed to beat the Seattle Sounders to advance to the Western Conference finals, but lost 1-0. Their only win in these circumstances was a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers in the Open Cup semifinals this year. But that was followed up, most embarrassingly, by RSL dropping a 1-0 decision to lowly D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup title game this year.
What's interesting about both of these items is that they seem so out of place.
The Galaxy have historically been a very good road team, which is a big reason that they are the two-time defending MLS Cup champions. They also have a veteran-laden squad that would seem well suited for arduous road battles.
And it's not like the Galaxy are an otherwise bad team. In stark contrast to their road-form, the Galaxy allowed a league-low eight goals at home. Their 32 goals scored at home were also the second highest total in MLS, giving them a league-best +24 home goal-difference.
I had assumed this was probably caused by a relatively cake home schedule and tougher road games. But some of their worst road performances came against pretty bad teams, a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, a 3-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps, a 2-2 tie against United, a 2-2 tie against Toronto FC and a 3-3 tie against FC Dallas. That's 13 goals allowed in five games against non-playoff teams. They also suffered a 5-0 pasting at the hands of the New England Revolution.
Even crazier is how many of those goals the Galaxy allow late in games. Of the 30 goals they allowed on the road, fully half came in the final 15 minutes. It's a phenomenon that defies a simple explanation.
Of course, much the same can be said about RSL's struggles at home when the stakes are high. This is a team that has gone 59-12-26 at home since 2008, easily the best mark in the league over that time.
One of these trends is going to have to give. And just in case you think you can look at their three meetings this year to make a prediction, they split their two games at Rio Tinto Stadium.