In Major League Soccer, there’s truly no place like home. That’s especially true in the playoffs.
As a result, among the most important questions to be answered on the final day of the regular season Sunday might not be who plays whom, but rather where they play.
Ten of the league’s 14 playoff invitations have already been handed out, with LAFC and the Galaxy each claiming one. But only five teams are guaranteed of opening the postseason at home, a major advantage in a league where the visitors won only 26% of the time.
LAFC clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last week when it won its second Supporters’ Shield in four years with a victory at Portland. The Galaxy, however, flew to Houston on Friday needing three points to assure themselves of another home date this year; anything short of that could leave the team facing an arduous path through the single-elimination playoffs as the tournament’s lowest seed.
“We want to get a good result. Certainly we would like to get home-field advantage,” Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said. “There’s a lot of reasons for us to go out and really focus with the right mentality and approach this game as if it’s a playoff game.”
No matter what happens in Houston, the Galaxy will have a real playoff game next week, just its second in six years. But it hasn’t played a postseason match at Dignity Health Sports Park since 2016, so long ago the stadium had another name then.
“There’s still a lot more work to do,” midfielder Mark Delgado said. “We want to have that home playoff games for our fans, our confidence. To hold it [there] would be special for everyone.”
In MLS, the top seven teams in each 14-team conference qualify for the playoffs, with the regular-season conference champions earning a first-round bye and the next three teams opening at home. The Galaxy (13-12-8) entered the weekend in fourth and they got there by being of the league’s hottest teams down the stretch, losing only one of their last 10.
But they lead the three teams below them — Nashville, Portland and Minnesota — by only two points. Win Sunday in Houston, and they come home again; anything less and they could fall as far as seventh. Even a draw could drop them to sixth.
“Momentum is precious in MLS. We’ve been on a good stretch over the last set of games,” Vanney said. “We just want to be in the right mindset as we work through this weekend and venture toward the playoffs.”
There are six teams battling for the remaining four postseason spots, two in each conference. Cincinnati and Columbus are currently above the playoff line in the East, but Orlando City could jump over both by beating Columbus. Orlando could also finish seventh, ahead of Cincinnati on a tiebreaker, with a draw and a Cincinnati loss at D.C. United.
Philadelphia, Montreal and New York City will start the playoffs at home, but which team finishes atop the standings and earns the first-round bye hasn’t been determined since Philadelphia leads Montreal by only two points. The Union finish the season at home against Toronto while Montreal plays at Miami.
In the West, Real Salt Lake and Vancouver are both below the line, but Salt Lake could win its way in by beating visiting Portland on Sunday while the Whitecaps could advance with a home win over Minnesota. Aside from LAFC and Austin, no team in the West is guaranteed a home opener, meaning Sunday’s results could scramble the postseason schedule there as well.
LAFC (21-8-4), meanwhile, faces a different challenge. The team can’t improve its position no matter what it does Sunday, although a win would make it only the third team in the modern era to win 22 games and the third to finish with at least 70 points.
But the first-round playoff bye can also be a bit of a burden because the team will have at least 10 days off before its first postseason game, a break that can upset a team’s tempo at this stage.
“That bye week is a blessing and a curse in a way because you don’t have that extra game,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said.
And finishing atop the conference in the regular season doesn’t always set a team up for success in the regular season — in fact, it’s often the opposite. Only once since 2011 has a team won a Supporters’ Shield and made the MLS Cup final in the same season.
“What we have in front of us is a bigger goal,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “MLS Cup is going to be so important, special. That’s what we have in our mind.”