Legging It

The two-leg, away goal tiebreaker experiment in the MLS playoffs is a week old.  In a related story, the Stanford Prison Experiment only lasted a week before saner heads pulled the plug. 

Let's take an academic approach to analyzing how the away goal tiebreaker is affecting the MLS playoffs, and therefore world civilization. 

"The Columbus Crew bandwagon was shot down over the Sea of Japan.  It spun in...there were no survivors."

New England sorely tested the cliché, if not catechism, that every away goal shall be referred to as "crucial."  The first couple of away goals for the Revolution were crucial, the third slightly less so, and the fourth was probably just rubbing it in.  The score curve for the Crew to advance starts off with a 3-0 lead, then 4-1, with 4-2 leading to overtime, and higher-scoring two-goal Columbus wins sending the Crew to the semifinals. 

What game two means now: well, the Crew COULD turn it around.  And Kate Middleton COULD leave Prince William for Carrot Top.

What it would have meant without away-goals: highly optimistic but nonetheless conceivable 0-2 and 1-3 results would have been on the table for short-term Crew survival. 

What game two would have meant if it were game one and only: a vastly more interesting game, simply because the Crew wouldn't at this point be the Black Knight roughly 2/3 of the way through his encounter with King Arthur in "Holy Grail."  Hard to blame away goal tiebreaker here as a tiebreaker, just as it's hard to devise a system to bail out a team that loses its home game.  Easy to blame the two leg system, though, for just wasting everyone's time. 

That includes a monumental comeback by the Crew in New England.  If they were going to beat the Revolution by multiple goals on the road, they would have done it anyway, wouldn't they?  Operation Lull The Enemy Into a False Sense of Security does not make for interesting or useful first legs. 

Shortly afterwards Utah:

"People thought a Penedo v. Rimando game would have goals.  Huh."

What that would have meant last year: Salt Lake would have been in pretty darn poor shape.

What it means with the away goal rule: You know, they're still not in great shape.  Yeah, every tie scenario except one is an automatic win for them, and that one exception is merely overtime.  So Salt Lake goes through with nearly any tie, and with any win.  The Galaxy need a win.

Fine, but the Galaxy are 12-1-4 at home, with a +30 home goal differential. 

Ah, but their only loss at home was to Salt Lake!  Sure it was.  In March, on Opening Night.  RSL went 4-7-6 on the road this year, -4 goal differential, and while we're on the subject three of the wins and four of the ties were before Independence Day.   

Technically, yes, the away goal tiebreaker makes things pointlessly more difficult here for a higher seed who got a point on the road.  Nevertheless, I hold this truth to be self-evident: it's not unreasonable to ask an MLS Cup contender to win its damn home games. 

And usually, outright win keeps you in is a good position after the first leg, not a bad one.

Compare, for example, Seattle vs. Dallas.  The Sounders salvage a 1-1 draw instead of a 1-0 loss, and they're thrilled (mostly with reason).  The Galaxy fail to score while preventing Salt Lake from scoring, and people act like the Galaxy are in a position that isn't pretty damn similar.

Except, thanks to the damned away goal rule, they're right.  Now, keep in mind here that the Sounders, at least as much as Los Angeles, should be expected to win a home playoff game in the first round.  If the Sounders do lose 2-2 or 3-3, they only have their rave green selves to blame.  I should make the effort to see whether the near 70% chance of home team wins in MLS has changed since this Freakonomics study, but if it has, it isn't because Seattle has started losing all the time on its magic carpet.

Still, statistics also show that the difference between 1-1 and 2-2 is a big one.  At least, the stats that Soccer By The Numbers did in 2010

Okay, you're so damn good at Google, you come up with something more recent and/or relevant.  MLS isn't a big four league, sure, and the defenses aren't up to European standard.  But there's a great deal more parity.  This may be apples to oranges, but I think it's more like galas to honeycrisps. 

The upshot is, (a) 1-1 is a terribly, terribly common score, and (b) in one series that will favor the higher seed; in the other, the lower. It's a non-trivial consequence of a silly tiebreaker.  It shouldn't really matter in the West, because, and I can't emphasize this enough, screw you if you don't win at home. 

But what if the lower seed wins at home?

New York and DC, so far, is how the cat and mouse of two legs and away goals is supposed to work.  The home team is supposed to win, after all...but by HOW MUCH?!  1-0 not great, 3-0 great.  2-0...well, that's pretty darn good, but not beyond reason.

What away goals has done to this series is to give New York an even greater advantage, should they happen to score in Washington.  If the Red Bulls don't score on Friday, DC needs two to tie and three to win.  If the Red Bulls DO score, though, DC would need four to win.

Now, there are probably lots of wonderful reasons why a 3-1 victory is worse than a 2-0 win.  I just can't think of any right this moment, and by "this moment" I mean "staring off into space for forty-five minutes waiting for any kind of insight on this, because seriously, what the hell?"  We want to encourage teams to try to score on the road, and this is the logic we've decided to accept in order to achieve that goal.

Fine.  So explain what the Red Bulls and their fourth place, nine points behind finish did to deserve these wonderful gifts.

Away goals is yet another equalizer - a weird, bizarre, silly equalizer - for a system that should be much less fair.  Well, "fair" is maybe the wrong word.  But on the spectrum of "no playoff at all" and "coin flip," a 34-game regular season ought to lean a little closer to giving a solid, measurable advantage to the team that won more and scored more points. 

Yeah, maybe DC United should have shown up to work on Sunday.  But 90 lousy minutes has undone over three thousand good ones.

"So get rid of the playoffs altogether and put in a single table."

Well, hang on, let's don't go burning the American flag here.  I'm just saying if we are going to have playoffs - and we're going to until the sun burns out, so deal - we should make lower seeds work. 

Still not convinced, huh.  Okay.  This one is painful for me, but...

Spartan Stadium.  November 9, 2003.  Frank Yallop's Earthquakes started the playoffs with an ugly thud, losing the first leg the week before 2-0.  Now, twenty minutes into the first half, the Quakes' hated rival, the MLS defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy, led by Carlos "Antichrist" Ruiz, have scored two more, giving LA a pretty much insurmountable 4-0 lead on aggregate. 

But Quakes fans believed!  And sure enough, goals from all-time permanent beloved Earthquakes legends Jeff Agoos and Landon Donovan brought San Jose back to even on the day, and only 4-2 behind - with 45 minutes left and everything to play for.

Early in the second half, speedster Jamil Walker upended the Galaxy defense - it was 3-2 on the night, 4-3 aggregate!  With forty minutes to play!  Spartan Stadium was a madhouse!  The Quakes kept pressing and pressing!  Sigi Schmid kept Hong Myung-Bo in the whole damn game, with Lalas on the bench!  What the hell was that?

Finally, in the 90th minute - the Quakes did it!  Cross from Mulrooney!  Header by Chris Roner!  At the very, very end!  Goal, Earthquakes!  Goal, San Jose!  We are ALL TIED UP!  At the VERY FINAL WHISTLE!  WE BELIEVE!  WE BELIEVE!  WE BELIEVE!

And then the Galaxy calmly shrugged and walked off the field after having given up four unanswered, because they advanced to the next round on away goals.

Is that what you people want?