BY JOSEPH SIMS
A recent poll in The Seattle Times showed that 57 percent of respondents don’t like the MLS’s away-goals tiebreaker used in its two-legged postseason playoff series. Twenty-four percent didn’t even know what the tiebreaker was.
I can understand why MLS fans aren’t aware of a tiebreaker the league just implemented this season. But having watched European soccer extensively for a decade, I have not only grown used to the away-goals rule, I have come to love it. So I am here to defend the rule that helped eliminate the Sounders against the Los Angeles Galaxy yet saved them against FC Dallas.
What is the away goals rule? Simply put, if teams end the two-legged aggregate series with the same number of goals, whichever team scored more goals away from home wins. For example, L.A. beat Seattle 1-0 in Los Angeles, and a week later Seattle won 2-1 in Seattle. The aggregate score was 2-2, but the Galaxy won the series and advanced to the MLS Cup final because it scored one goal away from home and Seattle scored zero.
The away-goals rule has two main purposes. The first is to prevent more awkward tiebreakers from becoming a factor. When the rule was first introduced by UEFA (Europe’s soccer governing body) in 1965, the penalty shootout had yet to be introduced. A tie over a two-legged playoff series could result in the logistical nightmare of trying to schedule a third, neutral leg of the playoff (which could itself end in a tie) in the midst of a club’s busy season. Or, as happened in the semifinal of the 1968 European Championships, the winner could be decided by drawing lots. The away-goals tiebreaker was deemed much easier – and fairer – than those alternatives.
Even after the introduction of the penalty-kick shootout, a way to avoid using it has always been welcome. No penalty shootout in any major tournament passes without someone bemoaning it as a “lottery” and calling for an alternative tiebreaker. And the away-goals rule has done a wonderful job of eliminating the shootout. Since the switch to its current knockout format in the 2003-04 season, the UEFA Champions League has seen just seven penalty shootouts to decide a two-legged series in 11 seasons. In other words, just one in every 22 series has gone to penalties. That is absurdly low compared to the penalty-shootout rate of the World Cup and also lower than the shootout rate of the MLS Cup playoffs before the introduction of the away-goals rule.
But while the away-goals rule undoubtedly avoids more awkward tiebreakers, that is just one of its two main purposes. The second is to prevent teams from playing too defensively away from home, especially if they host the second leg. Without the away-goals rule, the team hosting the second leg can “park the bus” and defend for 90 minutes in the first leg in hopes of securing a 0-0 draw, which would effectively give it a one-game playoff at home. In the 2008-09 UEFA Champions League, Chelsea parked the bus during the first leg of their semifinal with Barcelona. However, a late Barcelona equalizer (and plenty of questionable refereeing decisions) in the return leg meant that Chelsea were punished for negative tactics by the away-goals rule.
A recent alternative I have heard is that, in the event of a tie in the MLS Cup playoffs, the team with the higher seed advances. That is not a bad idea. It gives a lot more relevance to the regular season once a team is assured of a playoff spot. But it would add motivation to play the away leg defensively. Not only would a 0-0 draw (or any sort of draw, really) in the first leg give the higher seed a single-game playoff at home, it would be a single-game playoff at home where that team wins any sort of tie. That is too big of an advantage.
The away-goals rule is a much fairer tiebreaker that also encourages attacking, attractive soccer from both sides. There is a reason it has been around for decades and has shown no signs of going away – it works. And I believe that once MLS gives it more time and fans become more used to it, we in the United States will come to love it, too.
And maybe even understand it.
Joseph Sims graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla in May with a degree in politics. The graduate of Roosevelt High School in Seattle has an obsession with soccer that has taken him all over the globe, from the World Cup in South Africa, to the Emirates Stadium in London, to the Sounders-Timbers rivalry right here in Seattle.
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