Playoff time always brings with it much discussion of playoff soccer. Which is held to be, in some not fully explicable way, different from regular soccer. The theory behind this notion makes a good deal of sense.
Thus, playoff games have more intensity than regular-season games, they are all-or-nothing, do-or-die games. A place in the final beckons, an entire season’s work is on the line. Drama and heroics are likely.
I have, in the past, subscribed to such a view of playoff soccer -- if not to all the details, then certainly to the idea that it is different to the regular game.
Well, is it? We’ve had 12 playoff games so far -- four single-game eliminators, and eight of the home-and-home version. Maybe a trawl through the stats from these games will reveal some way in which they are exceptional.
One thing is immediately clear: the big advantage of playing at home. Three of the four single-game matches were won by the home team. While the eight home-and-home series produced six wins for the home teams. Of the four series, three were won by the teams that played at home in the first game. All four of these were decided without having to resort to the away-goals tiebreaker.
Intensity of play -- the commitment of the players -- is not something that can be easily measured. It is usually agreed that a team playing with high-intensity will produce a gung-ho version of soccer that will be reflected in its foul count: The greater the players’ commitment, the higher the number of fouls.
Possibly. But much more questionable is the parallel notion that a high foul count means a winning team. The 12 games under discussion show little or no evidence of such a relationship. The statistical evidence begins with the regular season foul-count for each team. Which makes Toronto and Seattle look pretty good, as they finished in 18th and 19th positions -- only Columbus had fewer fouls.
In the playoffs, Dallas out-fouled Seattle 30-14 but lost by a 4-2 aggregate. Similarly, NYC racked up 30 fouls against Toronto’s 24, but it was Toronto that won the series, 7-0.
Significant figures, but far from conclusive, because it is a different story with the other two playoff survivors. Montreal played three games (one against D.C.United, two against the Red Bulls) and out-fouled 54-39 to reach the final four. Colorado is evidently the most-likely-to-foul team. It finished near the top of the regular-season team foul count (in third position) and out-fouled Los Angeles 32-23 on its way to a shootout victory.
The stats (well, the Seattle and the Toronto stats) really show only that you don’t have to rack up fouls to win. Or -- an interpretation that I prefer -- that you can play with intensity without doing a lot of fouling.
The tactical approach to these games seems not to have been overly defensive. That was surely, and logically, the case in the four-single games, in which a total of 15 goals were scored.
A more cautious pattern was detectable in the opening games of the two-game series. Scores of 1-0, 1-0, 2-0 (with the second goal coming in the 92nd minute); while Seattle crammed all three of its goals against Dallas into an extraordinary 8-minute flurry.
Whatever, the four games produced only 7 goals, all scored by the home teams.
Things opened up somewhat in the return games, which produced 12 goals. A rampant Toronto scored five at NYC, while Montreal, basically defensive, based its win at the Red Bulls on classic counter-attacking soccer. The two Colorado-Los Angeles games gave an idea of what dour defensive “playoff” soccer looks like. Both ended with a minimal 1-0 win for the home team, and the wretched shootout was needed to declare Colorado the winner.
I cannot find anything resembling a definable “playoff soccer” style in these stats. But maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Maybe I should look at the refereeing. Is there such an animal as “playoff refereeing”?
I think so. It could more accurately be called “climactic game refereeing,” or “grand final refereeing.” Its main aim is to make sure that the game ends with 22 players on the field.
That’s pretty much what has happened in the MLS playoffs so far. Just one red card in 12 games, and that (to the Red Bulls’ Omer Damari) shown in the 93rd minute.
That stat is obviously too lonely to draw any hard conclusions. But it is suggestive. Pressure is on referees not to unbalance a crucial game by ejecting a player. The pressure is real, even though it may never have been mentioned to the referee. He himself knows and feels it. It could hardly be otherwise.
And the players quickly understand the situation. Of course they do. Particularly those who like to play physically anyway. There are two such players on the remaining four teams. Colorado’s Jermaine Jones and Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso.
Both of them have already greatly benefitted from referee leniency. Jones, a mere 6 minutes after coming on as a sub in the first game against L.A. pulled off an ugly looking foul from behind on Baggio Husidic. Inexplicably, referee Drew Fischer failed to yellow-card him. Nine minutes later Jones was at it again, crunching into Robbie Rogers. This time he did get a yellow -- but it should have been his second yellow and hence an ejection.
For Alonso, it worked the other way round. Half an hour into the game against Kansas City, he plowed into Roger Espinoza and was rightly cautioned by referee Ismail Elfath. Then, at 68 minutes, he recklessly fouled Benny Feilharber ... and got away with it. No foul was called by Elfath. But this too should have led to an ejection.
It is really quite ingenuous to talk about players like Jones and Alonso being “game-changers” and praising their inspirational leadership when so much of what they do relies on the complicity of benevolent refereeing.
Both players surely know that the playoffs are made for them because referees -- for the best of reasons -- are reluctant to eject them, for fear of “ruining the game.”
Both players -- each is considered a vital presence by his team -- need to be much more strictly refereed. I doubt whether either Fischer or Elfath will see further refereeing action in the playoffs. But in the interplay between a wily, physical player like Jones or Alonso and the referee, it should be -- it must be -- the referee who holds the whip hand. He must give the cards.