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In using away goals for playoffs, MLS keeps negating higher-seed edge

(Editor's note: This article first appeared on prior to the beginning of the 2014 MLS season)

Few know the MLS playoffs like Jeff Agoos. Only three men have appeared in more postseason games than the Hall of Fame defender, and nobody has taken the field for more MLS Cup finals or won more championships.

Now the league’s VP of competition, Agoos is a staunch playoff advocate. He believes the postseason crucible that rewards clutch performance in a showdown of title hopefuls is a valid test of a champion. And he said he's proud of MLS’ willingness to take risks and innovate as it attempts to grow the game in the U.S. and Canada.

But late last week, on the eve of the 2014 season, MLS quietly unveiled a new playoff wrinkle – one championed by Agoos -- that on its surface appears to represent both a misguided attempt to mimic the foreign establishment and an unwelcome reduction of the regular season's importance.

This year, for the first time in MLS history, the away goals tiebreaker will be used during the conference semifinals and finals, which are played as home-and-home, aggregate goals series. The change was revealed in the league’s Competition Rules and Regulations released last Friday.

The tiebreaker was instituted “so as to be consistent with CONCACAF and FIFA practice,” according to the document.

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The change might seem minor, but it’s one that raises questions about MLS’ priorities. What does it hope to stress and reward? What sort of competition will be appeal to the largest portion of a fractured domestic fan base -- some of which advocates American exceptionalism and some of which seeks conformity with Europe?

“We walk this balance of being innovative and being authentic, and it’s very hard,” Agoos told “Basketball doesn’t have to worry about this, or baseball or football. If they want a rule that will help their sport, like the three-point line in basketball, they just institute it. They don’t have to worry about the global game.”

The away goals tiebreaker, which has spread across the globe, was born in Europe. In the mid 1960s, before penalty kick shootouts were standard, UEFA sought to minimize the use of replays as scheduling (and eventually TV) concerns increased. In addition to serving as an extra hurdle that might mitigate the likelihood of a playoff, the tiebreaker also recognized that lengthy international trips and games in unfamiliar stadiums were burdens. A goal on foreign soil was harder to come by. It also was argued that rewarding the visiting team might open up the game, offering both sides an incentive to attack.

The away goals rule became popular in continental competitions, cup tournaments and qualifiers. That was reasonable. Travel could be difficult, and those formats typically weren't tied to any kind of regular season or seeding mechanism designed to afford one team an earned advantage. Once extra time entered the equation, it made sense to minimize the occasions when one team arbitrarily enjoyed an extra 30 minutes on its home field.

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The issue with MLS, however, is that its playoffs are a seeded competition. After 34 regular season games, clubs that finish higher in the standings are supposed to be rewarded with an easier path to the title. From the 1996 inaugural season through 2002, the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds were played as best-of-three series. With two matches on home turf, the higher seed advanced more than 69 percent of the time. There was fairness, but just the right amount of uncertainty.

But according to Agoos, “Fans just didn’t understand it. Fans didn’t get it.”

In 2003, the year Agoos won his record fifth MLS Cup, the best-of-three was replaced by a two-game, aggregate goals series. Since then, the higher seed has moved on only 56.25 percent of the time.

MLS faced criticism for reducing that advantage and thereby devaluing the regular season. In response, the league took several steps to inject more meaning into the first eight months of the campaign, from the awarding of MLS Cup hosting rights to the participant with the higher point total to a shift in CONCACAF Champions League qualifying.

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“We want the regular season to have meaning and significance beyond just identifying the playoff field,” Nelson Rodriguez said in 2012. The league’s former executive VP in charge of competition, who now runs league-owned Chivas USA, also argued that the potential 30 minutes of extra time on home turf represented a genuine home-field advantage for the higher seed. It was something worth playing for.

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Of the 48 two-leg series contested in MLS history, 10 (or 20.8 percent) required extra time. And Rodriguez was right – the higher seed had an advantage. On only one of those 10 occasions did the visitor outscore the host during those 30 minutes. That occurred last year, when the Houston Dynamo upset the Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. On five occasions, the home team won outright and four more times the series was a dead heat and decided via penalty kicks. That's 5-1-4 to the hosts.

Now, MLS has rendered those extra 30 minutes less likely to occur thanks to away goals. That is, after all, what the tiebreaker was designed to do. And in the process, it seems as if the league has reduced the importance of the regular season.

Agoos, who said implementation of the away goals rule “was almost unanimously supported by our technical staffs" and approved by the board of governors, insists that isn’t the case. One reason is because MLS won’t count away goals during extra time, giving the home team – if it gets there – the same advantage it enjoyed under the previous format. The second reason is because he believes the higher seed will have the benefit of taking a stranglehold on the series with an away goal in the opening leg.

“It still does incentivize the regular season,” he said. “I do not think it’s a regression.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has voiced his opposition to away goals, stating they offer too much weight tactically. (Rui Vieira/AP)

Arsene Wenger

There are contrarians in Europe who’ve tired of away goals, including several notable writers (like contributor Jonathan Wilson) and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger.

Opponents argue that easier travel and modern stadium standards have made the road trip far less daunting than it used to be (away wins are far more frequent). Others insist that away goals don’t promote free-wheeling football at all, but rather force teams to play even more conservatively.

“I believe the tactical weight of the away goal has become too important," Wenger has said. "Teams get a 0-0 draw at home and they're happy. Instead of having a positive effect it has been pushed too far tactically in the modern game. It has the opposite effect than it was supposed to have at the start. It favors defending well when you play at home."

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According to an article in The Blizzard, a British magazine, former Argentine international and Real Madrid sporting director Jorge Valdano once said, “You see more and more home teams incapable of taking the initiative against well-organized opposition … [leaving visiting teams to] feed off the openness of their hosts. That, by definition, makes them bloodsuckers.”

Agoos can counter.

First, even the top European clubs travel for UEFA Champions League competition fewer than 10 times per season. In MLS, crossing time zones is routine. And it’s hard. Agoos contended that scoring on the road should be rewarded.

“It’s a 3,000-mile-wide continent and the travel, as you know in this league, is very, very difficult. Especially when we get down to the end,” he said. “[The playoffs] are at the end of the season, after a team has traveled thousands and thousands of miles. It’s a cumulative effect.”

And he disagrees with the idea that the importance of away goals produces caution. If anything, Agoos argued, they create additional excitement.

“Every time you have an away goal, it completely changes the competition. You have the possibility of increased match variation, higher entertainment value. Once an away goal is scored, the entire series is changed, no matter what part of that 180 minutes it occurs in,” he said.

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Indeed, an away goal can have the same effect as a touchdown or a three-pointer, lifting a trailing team into the lead in one pivotal moment. That's exciting. And in unseeded competition, it has its place. But in a seeded tournament, and in a league that claims to values the regular season, such excitement seems out of place.

MLS could have followed through with a plan to allow the higher seeded team select which leg it hosts. Agoos said that ultimately, there was no “prevailing sentiment” on the issue. MLS could have decided to declare a series in favor of the higher seed if tied on aggregate, a mechanism used in Liga MX. That would be placing real value on the regular season. But instead, it’s enacted a rule that erases any tangible advantage for the club with the better record. The incentive Agoos described is psychological.

Rather, it seems MLS has kowtowed to an archaic foreign tradition for the sake of “authenticity”.

In so doing, it has further separated the playoffs from the regular season. There already are fans and players who value the Supporters' Shield more than MLS Cup.  The league, meanwhile, has fought to toe the line Agoos described, honoring the traditional importance of the regular season while stressing that the Cup really is the prize worth claiming.

To make a convincing case that the MLS Cup winner is the undisputed league champion, there must be a real link between the regular season and the playoff. They must feel like two parts of the same competitive whole, like the group stage and knockout rounds at the World Cup. One must bleed into the other.

But the 2003 introduction of the home-and-home format created a disconnect. Suddenly, a soccer game wasn’t about winning. It wasn’t about being the best team over 90 minutes, like it was for eight long months (or like it would be if the playoffs featured best-of-three series or a group stage -- formats that prioritize victory). It became about the score.

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Soccer fundamentally changes under an aggregate goal format. Tactics shift. A team leading late must rethink how it finishes a match. A one-goal, first-leg loss is acceptable. (Playoff defeat never should be acceptable). Regular-season standings are determined first by points, not goal differential. When playoff fates are determined by aggregate goals rather than wins and losses, it takes on the feel of a distinct competition played under different rules. What sort of league changes its scoring system, one of the most fundamental components of the sport, part of the way through?

Away goals increase that disconnect. Not only do they further distort the tactics over the course of a 90-minute game,  they reduce the chance that the higher seed will enjoy the only tangible advantage available in a two-game series (extra time). It now matters just a bit less where a given team finishes in the standings, and that will buoy those who regard the regular season and MLS Cup as separate competitions.

“It’s more about what our sport is globally then what it is domestically … It’s not saying that one is right or one is wrong. I think it’s a projection of a global world,” Agoos said. “Ten years ago, we were looking to bring in NFL fans – American football fans and baseball fans. I don’t think that’s our market. Our market is soccer fans, and our fans are very savvy.”

The league believes fans will embrace the away goals rule. It’ll add tension, and perhaps give the playoffs that authentic Champions League feel. But it also will embolden critics who question the very validity of the postseason. MLS has undercut its own champion.

“They are two separate competitions,” LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said in 2011. “They’re unique in themselves and one has nothing to do with the other."

That's truer now than at any point in MLS history.