For the first time this year, MLS is using away goals as the first tiebreaker in their playoff home and home matchups. Before we get to the pros and (mostly) cons of this rule, here’s a guide to the 2nd legs of the conference semifinals, taking away goals into effect:
Cells with white bars above and below represent aggregate ties, and are the scenarios in which the rule matters. In previous MLS home-and-home matchups, the 2nd leg would have gone to extra time, but now you only get OT if the two legs’ scorelines are palindromic. It is important to note that away goals will only count in regulation, so on rare instances where a matchup reaches overtime, the home side will get a glimmer of an edge. But if they can’t take advantage in 30 minutes, the edge evaporates, as studies have shown that penalty kick shootouts are home field neutral.
In this year’s matchups, this means that Los Angeles & Seattle will be incentivized to clamp down the match and keep it low scoring, so that even an aggregate tie would land in their favor, or at least give them 30 minutes of home overtime. Same for New England, but all they have to do is hold Columbus to a couple of goals or less. The other top seed, D.C. United, has the trickiest path, as they need two goals, but if New York scores once, that number doubles.
Which brings us to the major problem with this setup. Home-and-home is designed to negate home field advantage with 90 minutes played in both settings, and the only way for there to be an advantage for the higher seed is for them to get an extra 30 minutes of home field in that second leg. An away goals tiebreaker makes that outcome even less likely than it was before. I’m not the only one who sees the issue this way, and you can read Brian Straus’ smart critique upon the rule’s introduction here.
The issue goes beyond the basic logic of the setup, though. A study performed by the University of Munich’s Department of Statistics concluded in 2010 that
It is shown that the observed differences in frequencies of winning between teams first playing away and those which are first playing at home can be completely explained by their performances on the group stage and – more importantly – by the teams’ general strength.
That’s what you want in a champions league competition where seeding is far from straightforward or trustworthy, but in a season-culminating playoff system? If MLS wants the MLS Cup to feel like the legitimate ultimate trophy for each season, they need a playoff system in which regular season excellence is rewarded, not neutered. They had that, though it was cumbersome, before 2003 in their best of three format, but they’ve been adrift ever since in home and home murkiness, and away goals is taking them even further from shore.
Champions of away goals in MLS, such as MLS’ Technical Director of Competition Jeff Agoos, point to various rationales like the rule promoting attacking play, drama, or being an “authentic” Europe-bred standard. Some very smart people in Europe have problems with it, though, and I have yet to see proof of any off these defenses of away goals.
Thankfully, MLS only have to peer south of the border for a clear, simple upgrade. Mexico’s Liga MX has playoffs in which the home-and-home tiebreaker is regular season record. Underdogs have to win outright, which makes far more sense. As things stand in MLS, there is effectively no difference between the 2nd and 3rd seeds in each conference, who meet each other to start their playoff runs, and the only advantage footer the top seeds is the hope that their opponent is wounded from their play-in wild card match. Shouldn’t 34 matches carry much more weight than that?