The 2021 MLS Cup Playoff race was a heated one with several teams in contention to advance. Some teams clinched their playoff spot early, some barely squeezed in, and others will have to wait until next year to try again.
Despite a chaotic end to the regular season, common patterns developed among the teams who qualified for the postseason.
With Charlotte FC looking to be in this playoff-bound group in 2022, we can take away some important lessons from the teams that got there this year.
Win Home Matches
When looking at the playoff teams on the surface, their strong home records immediately stand out. A team can withstand a poor away run if they can consistently perform at home.
Away matches in MLS pose their own unique challenges compared to other leagues in both the Americas and Europe. Travel distance is always brought up as one of the biggest challenges for teams for good reason.
The average total travel distance in a season for MLS teams is 36,000 miles. To put it into perspective, the equatorial circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles.
So, in a season, MLS teams travel the equivalent distance of going around the world one and a half times. To compare that to the most prominent soccer league in the world, the furthest a team will travel this season in the Premier League will be 8,874 miles.
The distance and dramatically different climates affect not only the players’ physical performance levels but also the ability for fans to travel and support their teams at away games.
These challenges are what make home games much more valuable and – theoretically – easier to win. Not having to travel, the support of the home fans, and playing on a familiar field are all favorable conditions to give your team the best shot at winning.
In the Eastern Conference (aside from the juggernaut that is the 2021 New England Revolution), not one playoff team registered more than five away wins this season. But you guessed it, they all had strong home records.
A good example is Real Salt Lake who clinched their playoff spot on Decision Day with a dramatic 94th minute winner from Damir Kreilach. However, it was really through their consistent home form that they were in a position to make the playoffs in the first place.
On the road, Real Salt Lake managed only five wins and two draws to go with 10 losses. However, back home at Rio Tinto Stadium they won nine times, drew four, and only lost four.
To really hammer the point, I did some simple math to calculate how many points a team would have if they won every home match and lost every away one. The result: 51 points and a high enough total to make playoffs this year.
Obviously, winning every single home game isn’t realistic, but Nashville did manage to go undefeated at home this year, becoming the 7th team to do so in MLS history. That is incredibly difficult to do, but it gave them points from every single home game and a deserved cushion if they dropped points playing away.
It is important to note that Charlotte will have a slight advantage when it comes to away matches compared to other teams. Not only is Charlotte in the Eastern Conference – which has closer distances to travel compared to the West – but they are also located right smack in the middle of the conference.
Charlotte will have to travel less distance than most other teams in the league, but that doesn’t take away from the significance of winning at home.
This is why it is so crucial for Charlotte FC to create an emphatic home environment to help encourage the team on the pitch and make it difficult for opponents to play in. Squeezing every little advantage out of playing at home is what teams who make the playoffs do.
Every team needs players who are going to show up and make a difference week-in and week-out. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your superstar Designated Players (DPs) but having players who can consistently create moments that win you games is invaluable.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are a perfect example of how such difference makers can turn an entire season around. Vancouver started out the season poorly and early on it seemed like they were doomed to have another disappointing year.
That was until they brought in some reinforcements through a Designated Player deal for attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld and a trade with the New York Red Bulls for Homegrown striker Brian White. Up until this point, the only significant production they were getting out of any attacker was through Cristian Dájome, but he needed help.
In the second half of the season, Gauld and White made all the difference in resurrecting the Whitecaps’ season. In the last 15 games, Ryan Gauld had nine goal contributions and White had an astounding 14.
Without these individuals’ contributions, Vancouver wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
Such difference makers can help you clinch playoffs long before the end of the season like the stars of New England. Their maestro, Carles Gil, logged the 2nd highest number of assists in the league with 13.
Their other Designated Players, strikers Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou, scored a combined total of 31 goals with Bou contributing an additional nine assists. This isn’t even to mention Matt Turner, who is saving 7.3 more goals than he is expected to according to advanced analytics by American Soccer Analysis, good for 2nd in the league.
Of course, like everything, there are exceptions. The Colorado Rapids ended up topping the Western Conference with the least number of minutes played by DPs across the league.
This was only possible because several players at the Rapids contributed a small amount, but a small amount adds up to a lot when numerous players are providing goals and assists. However, the risk involved in this approach is that you don’t have a player that you can consistently count when you need a moment of magic in a game.
Those magicians in MLS are normally the Designated Players. They are usually acquired by paying high transfer fees and get paid the most money on a team. Due to the costs involved, they are expected to perform at a very high standard.
At the time of writing, Charlotte hasn’t signed any Designated Players and have all three DP slots still available to fill. These signings will be extra important to get right because they will be expected to be the difference makers for the Club.
With that said, we saw in Vancouver with Brian White (who is on a very team-friendly deal) that these difference makers aren’t always the DPs. Charlotte has already signed eight players and seeing who could rise to be one of these difference makers will be interesting to keep an eye on.
The more players on your roster who can change games the better, because sometimes your stars will have an off day or get injured. This is where depth becomes critical.
Having the best difference makers in the league suddenly doesn’t matter if they get injured. But unfortunately, injuries are an inevitable part of the game.
The MLS regular season is a war of attrition. Rarely can teams rely on all their key players staying healthy throughout, so the teams with the deepest rosters tend to prevail.
And there’s no better example of depth in the league than the Seattle Sounders.
The Sounders began their season without two of their key attackers, Jordan Morris and Nicolás Lodeiro. If it were most other teams who lost two of their best attackers to long-term injuries, their seasons would have been done right there and then.
However, the Sounders have done an excellent job of acquiring players and bringing through young Homegrowns to fill the gaps. Players like Fredy Montero and Will Bruin have stepped up, along with Homegrowns Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva.
Perhaps their most impressive display of their depth this season was in their game versus Austin FC. Seattle started five teenagers, two of them being 16 years old, and won the game… on the road.
So, despite being down two Designated Players for almost the entirety of the season, the Sounders are going into playoffs as the second seed in the West. This is a testament to their depth.
Injuries are all but guaranteed so preparing for them should be a priority for every team that wants a shot at the playoffs.
Charlotte FC have a fantastic opportunity to increase their depth with the upcoming Expansion Draft and SuperDraft. Five players with MLS experience will be up for grabs in the Expansion Draft to help reinforce Charlotte’s team.
The SuperDraft will provide a place to get young college prospects that may very well be able to contribute in their rookie year. Another tool to acquire depth pieces in preparation for the inaugural season is MLS Free Agency.
As the old saying goes, a team is only as good as its weakest player.
Decision Day may be the day that teams find out their playoff fates, but their playoff spots are truly decided over the course of an entire season.
The 2021 MLS Cup Playoff race taught us that it’s a combination of defending your home field all season, difference makers coming up big, and role players showing up when needed to keep your season rolling beyond Decision Day.