History Says Visiting Philadelphia Union Can Win MLS Cup — If They Work Overtime

If you follow MLS regularly, you know the league has one of the strongest home field advantages in North American pro sports and in global club soccer. And if past history is to be believed, that advantage grows even larger in the MLS Cup final.

Well, sort of.

Home teams have won at least 48{103b56ea92be0dd41565f6f69e3e801704648e8db5bb0ea690860a645c388de0} of MLS regular season and playoff matches (after 90 minutes plus stoppage time) in every 34-game season played since 2012, with the percentage rising above 50{103b56ea92be0dd41565f6f69e3e801704648e8db5bb0ea690860a645c388de0} in several of those years.

Entering Saturday’s MLS Cup final between hosts LAFC and the visiting Philadelphia Union, 2022 home teams have a 49{103b56ea92be0dd41565f6f69e3e801704648e8db5bb0ea690860a645c388de0} win rate, with another 25{103b56ea92be0dd41565f6f69e3e801704648e8db5bb0ea690860a645c388de0} of matches finishing level after 90 minutes.

Yet since the league switched to an MLS Cup format where the higher remaining seed hosts the final, the away team in the final has pulled off only one regulation victory in 13 tries. This includes the last 11 MLS Cup finals, as well as the 1997 and 2002 games, in which D.C. United and the New England Revolution, respectively, reached finals they were already selected to host as the “neutral” site.


However, when you add games decided in overtime or penalties, the road team has lifted the cup on four of those 13 occasions, a trend that could be of particular use to bettors or producers of the 6 o’clock news in Philadelphia. The 2002 LA Galaxy won their MLS Cup in New England on a golden goal; The Seattle Sounders in 2016 and New York City FC last year both required penalties.

Home teams have also required extra time on two occasions, making home teams’ 90-minute record 7-1-5 (W-L-D) in those 13 games. Those seven wins in 13 games is statistically similar to the winning rate of home teams in MLS overall. And you might expect it to be a little higher, since the better regular season performer is nearly always the home team in MLS Cup (the lone exception being New England in 2002).

So maybe it’s not home field advantage overall that is greater in the MLS Cup so much as home field momentum. Away teams appear to have just as much of a chance as they always do so long as they’re tied or in the lead. But if they go behind, they can lose their grip on the game more quickly.

There’s two points of evidence for this. The first is there have been more 90-minute home wins by two goals in MLS Cup (five) than by one goal (two). The second is that only one away MLS Cup final team has ever leveled after falling behind — when New England’s Chris Tierney scored in the 79th minute of the 2014 final against the LA Galaxy. (The Galaxy won in extra time on Robbie Keane’s 111th-minute winner.)

The good news for the Union is they might be better equipped than most to lift a trophy in those road conditions, for a couple reasons.

Firstly, there is usually at least a small gap in regular season performance between the higher seeded MLS Cup host and lower seeded visitor. But in this case, the Union are literally having to travel across the continent for the game because MLS uses total wins as its first tiebreaker in the standings. In other leagues that use goal-differential as the first tiebreak, the Union would be hosting after both teams finished with 67 points.

Secondly, it’s the Union who have been the more likely to play from the early lead this season. They’ve entered halftime with a lead in 18 of 36 regular season and playoff games. By contrast, LAFC have held a first-half lead on only nine of 36 occasions, and even at home the Black & Gold have led only six out of 19 times at half.