It wasn’t so long ago that MLS officials refused to adopt a two-leg, total-goal playoff format in part because they feared confusion and ridicule from fans and press.
There were other reasons, but explaining how a team could lose a game, say, 1-0, and still advance by winning the other game by a larger margin so terrified MLS that instead it used all manner of alternatives: best-of-three, first-team-to-five-points, two-games-plus-a-mini-game, etc. Once the two-game series format was adopted, as the league feared, a few potshots came flying its way among the ill-informed, but more criticism has been heaped on which team should host the first leg, how the matchups are determined, and why the league flips back and forth between one-game and two-game formats.
Those are valid points related to how MLS teams finish during the regular season; as for international competitions, the two-leg series has gained not only acceptance, but comprehension, and for this sport in this country that is an important step. (MLS still doesn’t use away goals as a tiebreaker.) Maybe it’s the influence of the European Champions League, or the two-leg playoffs used in the final phase of World Cup qualifications and promotion to the English Premier League, or just the fact that in the past decade many different MLS teams have faced Concacaf opposition in the two-leg scenario.
Whatever the reason, there’s excitement and anticipation, not befuddlement, about what’s at stake when RSL plays Monterrey Wednesday night in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions’ League finals. The local TV stations and newspapers that have been following RSL in its Concacaf quest reiterate the format without belittling it. That, too, is progress, especially in Utah, which as recently as 2004 hadn’t seen an MLS game or a soccer stadium, much less won a title.
“We know it is going to be very difficult, but we love being the first at everything,” said owner Dave Checketts in a conference call Monday. “We love these occasions where people can say about us no one has ever advanced this far. In reality, we’re just a club from Salt Lake City, Utah, that has tremendous players from nine different nations, is well-coached and is fully prepared and fit and ready to play our best football and see what we can accomplish.”
Underpinning the messages, tweets and video clips of support from coaches, players and executives from around the league are the strategies and philosophies of playing the first game away and the second at home. On Tuesday, RSL head coach Jason Kreis said that while he preferred a win or tie, of course, a narrow defeat in which RSL scored an away goal would suit him just fine.
Not too many years ago, not many fans and journalists would truly understand why a 1-0 loss is different than a 2-0 loss, or why a 2-1 away loss is better than 1-0. Calling it "aggregate" or "total goals" didn’t seem to matter, and belaboring the advantages and disadvantages, real or perceived, of playing the first leg away or at home also obscures the stark fact that over two legs, the “better” team in those two games usually wins.
In the semifinals, RSL hosted the first leg against Deportivo Saprissa and came away with the result most observers would regard as the minimal advantage required: a 2-0 win that didn’t afford Saprissa the tiebreaker edge of an away goal. RSL did concede the first goal at Saprissa that narrowed the aggregate to 2-1, then rode out some nervy moments until defender Jamison Olave slammed home the goal that buried Saprissa’s hopes. Olave’s goal meant Saprissa would need to win the match, 4-1, to advance.
In last year’s MLS playoffs, RSL lost the first leg at FC Dallas, 2-1, and couldn’t do the business at home, going out, 3-2, on aggregate after a 1-1 tie. Overturning a one-goal disadvantage isn’t an automatic.
There are emotional as well as strategic advantages to playing the second leg at home. Lifting the CCL trophy at Rio Tinto would mark another milestone for RSL in its remarkable rise since coming aboard just six years ago. There’s also the danger of being hammered in Monterrey, where game-time temperatures could reach 100 degrees, and needing to climb out of a huge hole against a very good team.
The poise and maturity, along with skill and experience, of this RSL squad is what gives it more than a fighting chance to prevail. Very rarely do its players get rattled. Lashed by wind and rain, it opened the MLS season last month at Buck Shaw Stadium, and resolutely stuck to its task, winning, 1-0, on a goal by its captain, Kyle Beckerman. It blew away the Galaxy, 4-1, in its home opener a week later. Monterrey is a tougher challenge, but not insurmountable.
Kreis and his players have downplayed the possible consequences of critical refereeing decisions and fanatical Monterrey supporters disrupting their efforts. No matter what happens in the first leg, there will be a second leg, and the key to success is minimizing damage in the former and securing maximum opportunity for the latter while ignoring everything but the opponent.
“We have a very, very mature group, a team that is extremely experienced,” says Kreis. “Quite a few of our players have played with their national team in World Cup qualifier matches in some of the hardest environments to play matches in. So, I don’t think it can get any more pressurized than the multiple experiences they’ve already had. We’re very well prepared for it.”