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5. MLS: Evaluating the first-round format
October 30th, 2006 7:01PM

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By Ridge Mahoney

Away goals or penalty kicks? Which is better?


When MLS drew up its playoff format, deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis admitted that not using away goals as a tiebreaker increases the chances of overtime and penalty kicks. A league whose regular-season games are often lacking in drama selected a playoff scheme designed to ratchet up the intensity and suspense as much as possible.

Also, a two-game, total-goals format is esoteric enough for many of the people who cover and attend MLS games, regardless of its use around the world. Tacking on an away-goals provision would increase their confusion. It's still seems strange to many that D.C. United advanced by tying Red Bull, 1-1, and winning, 2-1, on aggregate.

The rationale can be argued but the effect cannot. The overtimes were intense - especially in Dallas, where both teams scored in OT -- and the penalty kicks excruciating. Yet the most dramatic ending came in Houston, when Brian Ching's header looped over the Chivas USA goal line in stoppage time of regulation for a 2-0 win on the night and 3-2 on aggregate. Had away goals been used a tiebreaker, Houston would have advanced without Ching's late goal.

And if away-goals had been in play, penalty kicks would not have been needed to settle the New England-Chicago and Dallas-Colorado series.

The Fire - tied 2-2 with New England on aggregate at the end of regulation in the second leg -- would have won on its away goal, 1-0. Series over. The scenario in Dallas was a lot more complicated.

When the Rapids and FC Dallas finished regulation with Colorado leading, 2-1, and the teams deadlocked in goals, 3-3, they were also tied on away goals, 2-2. (FC Dallas won the first leg in Denver, 2-1.)

However, at the end of overtime, the teams were tied again in total goals (4-4), but the Rapids led on away, goals, 3-2. Series over. To win the series in that situation, Dallas would have needed an additional goal to cancel out Colorado's away goal advantage and win 5-4 on aggregate.

Take it away, "SportsCenter." Try explaining that to the folks at home. Maybe Gazidis is right. Penalties are a terribly unfair way to decide a playoff, but at least they are comprehensible.

The use of away goals isn't universal. A staple of European competitions, they aren't used in the Copa Libertadores nor CONCACAF play.

Critics question if playing the second game at home is really advantage to the higher seed. In five of the 16 first-round series played since the format was adopted in 2003 the higher seed failed to advance. Colorado's upset of Dallas is the third time a No. 4 seed has knocked off the conference champ, a rather high incidence considering only eight of those matchups have been played.

Last year, much anguish stemmed from three of four lower-seeded teams advancing. Most notorious, of course, was the .500 Galaxy (13-13-6) knocking off Western Conference champ San Jose, yet who could have forecast Eastern No. 2 D.C. being smoked, 4-0, at RFK by the No. 3 Fire after the teams drew 0-0 in Chicago?

And the case can be made that if the higher seed wins the first game on the road, the second game should be a formality. Not so. To win its series, Dallas - like D.C. United - needed only a tie at home. Dallas choked, and United sweated buckets to get past the Red Bulls.

This is another reason not to use away goals. If the higher seed scores in its away game its advantage is increased, although that wouldn't have helped D.C. all that much after it won, 1-0, at the Meadowlands. When Josmer Altidore scored Sunday in the 76th minute, the teams were tied with one away goal apiece.

It's not the format, stupid, it's the parity. Weird stuff happens. But it can be exciting.


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