St. Louis City SC head coach Bradley Carnell started his playing career as a teenager at Bidvest Wits FC in Johannesburg, South Africa. One weekend, he and the rest of “The Clever Boys” won an away match thanks to a late penalty kick. The fans of the opposing team, upset with the result, stormed the field, bloodlust in their eyes.
“They got the referee,” Carnell told ESPN. “They put him in a coma. We ran into the tunnel and to the locker rooms where we locked ourselves in. Players from the home team helped us escape, sneaking us out of the stadium. They put me in the trunk of one of their vehicles. That was the only way to get out.”
This experience puts St. Louis taking on rival Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park into a bit of perspective. Still, playing on the road in Major League Soccer is hard — more difficult, in fact, than any of the top five European leagues. Between 2015 and 2021, away teams in MLS won just 24% of the time, compared to 31% of the time in the best leagues across the pond and 29% of the time in other North and South American leagues.
This season, it’s been more of the same, only worse. Through Oct. 9, away sides won just 22.5% of the time, earning a truly abysmal 0.97 points per game. More than half the teams have three or fewer wins on the road, including New York City FC’s 1-8-8 record and Toronto FC’s incompetent 0-13-4 showing. The Houston Dynamo, CF Montréal, the Portland Timbers and the San Jose Earthquakes are all in the playoffs or fighting for a spot despite winning just two road matches all season.
Road teams have scored 500 goals in 2023, compared with 809 for the home squad, which nets out to losing by 0.65 goals a game. Expected goals, however, are closer: 724.73 for home teams against 536.44 for road teams, or 1.53-1.13 per game. This indicates that players across the league fail to finish on the road. By comparison, traveling Premier League teams last season over performed their xG with home teams scoring about the number of goals their advanced numbers would indicate.
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So winning away from home in MLS is hard, but why? There are plenty of reasons, some that are unique to the structure of MLS as a league and others that are a product of the country where the league plays.
A major, and unavoidable one, is simply the size and varied conditions in the United States. Nothing is a bus ride away. (Well, maybe NYCFC and the New York Red Bulls, but you try getting from the Bronx to Harrison, New Jersey without a mind-boggling amount of frustration that would throw the most mentally stable player off their game.) Even a team like St. Louis, located in the middle of the country, is constantly on long-haul flights.
“We can go from coast to coast, frequently on short rest,” Carnell said. “We’ll play Wednesday then Saturday, in different temperatures, different altitudes, different time zones. Your body gets on a different schedule and you’re waking up the boys early for breakfast at what feels like 6 a.m. The body’s just get out of whack, you know?”
Other clubs have similar, but different, issues.
“We are the farthest team from everywhere,” Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Vanni Sartini told ESPN. “We rarely have a short flight and almost every time, we go to a different time zone and play in a completely different set of conditions than Vancouver.”
There’s elevation in Colorado and Utah, humidity in Houston and Florida, artificial turf in Atlanta, a tiny pitch in Yankee Stadium, a massive one at Dignity Health Sports Park, and idiosyncrasies all over. Long travel also limits support — two of the most memorable away matches for Sartini came in Portland, a short journey from the Canadian club’s home base.
And then there are the endless road trips. In most leagues, teams generally have a home game followed by a road game. In MLS, less so.
When he spoke, Sartini’s Whitecaps were in the middle of a seven-game span away from BC Place. (It was originally six, but inclement weather forced the postponement of a match against the Colorado Rapids.) He tried to put a positive spin on the experience, saying, “It’s not a bad thing because it allows us to gather a couple of trips. We did Chicago and New York together without coming back. We try to use the quote unquote ‘adversity’ of the schedule in our favor.”
Sure, of course, but you’d rather not have the adversity of a seven-game swing in the first place. Sartini wore a sweatshirt that read “Vancouver is home” in the match against Colorado.
Last season, Nashville SC opened their season with eight games on the road before Geodis Park was ready. Self-inflicted adversity yes, but adversity nonetheless.
“There were two games at the end where we played San Jose one weekend, and we had LA Galaxy the following weekend,” head coach Gary Smith said to ESPN. “We went two days before to San Jose, flew back through the night, and got home at six or seven o’clock in the morning. We traveled again on a Thursday to L.A. and did exactly the same. That was brutal.”
Against the Galaxy, Smith’s exhausted side managed just 32.8% possession and a single shot on target in a 1-0 loss.
Parity is another factor. In the Premier League, there are a handful of teams that will be favored on the road against a handful of other teams. Those are, as far as international football goes, easy games. In MLS, there are no great teams and no terrible teams. It’s a league built on parity, on varying degrees of mid, where the difference in skill level is one of degrees rather than massive gulfs. Furthermore, with 18 of 29 teams reaching the postseason, there’s little incentive to give up on a season.
“The way that it’s set up, MLS keeps a lot of teams active until the very, very last kick,” Smith said. “And for the most part, the fans are engaged because they feel as though there’s something to aim for. There’s very, very little to choose between an awful lot of teams.”
Experience in the domestic league does help coaches manage road trips. When Sartini first joined Vancouver, he’d have the team travel as early as possible to the city where they were playing. After talking with his research and analytics team, however, they realized that flying at the last-possible minute and adjusting the schedule to stay on Vancouver time whenever possible produced the best results. The Whitecaps went 3-2-2 on their seven-game late-season road trip, solidifying their postseason spot and giving them a shot at a home playoff match. (The Apple TV deal, which puts most matches at 7:30 p.m. ET, helps in this regard as well. It’s difficult to stay on West Coast time if kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET as some games have been in previous seasons.)
Nashville’s Smith learned that he needed to let go.
“In some of the early days, if we had extended road trips, every single meal would be with the team,” he said. “I wanted the team around because I wanted to control what they were eating and where they were going.”
That control backfired, players chaffing against the restrictions. If they were at home, they’d be free to eat what they wanted, so why was it different on the road? Now, Smith trusts his charges, giving them an evening to be on their own.
For Carnell’s St. Louis, who posted an impressive 6-8-3 record on the road in their inaugural season, a key is altering their proactive pressing formula.
“It’s about surviving the summer,” he said. “If we go play away, we might be just as aggressive but adjust our confrontation points to a different area where we are more connected, more compact so we have less distance to travel on the pitch.”
There are ideas about winning away in MLS, but no clubs have mastered the art. Perhaps no one ever will. It’s difficult, and that’s part of the challenge and opportunity.
As the playoffs approach, winning MLS Cup will very likely require getting results on the road. In 2018, the Portland Timbers made the final as a fifth seed, the lowest seed in the TAM era. That squad played a smash-and-grab style that can produce road results but can also turn ugly as it did during a 2-0 defeat to Atlanta United in the final.
The best route to hoisting MLS Cup? Dominate your home matches, scrap out some results on the road, take home the Supporters’ Shield and host the final yourself.