Sounders fall victim to MLS 'home team advantage' rules

This year's Major League Soccer playoffs were supposed to favor the Sounders, seeded above the L.A. Galaxy. What happened?
Salt Lake Real's goalie Nick Rimando was in complete control of his area.

Salt Lake Real's goalie Nick Rimando was in complete control of his area. Photo by Laurie Hodges

Scroll down for exclusive video from Crosscut contributor Art Thiel. 

Explain to me again, Major League Soccer, how the higher-seeded Sounders' set-up the past weekend constituted a home-field advantage:

Win on the road in Salt Lake Thursday. Fly home Friday. Fly to Los Angeles Saturday. Lose on the road Sunday. Give the winning team a week to rest its aged bones, exhausted after practicing standing across the goal, shoulder to shoulder, for 90 minutes.

That is a wretched way to determine a champion.

Not saying the circumstances were a sufficient excuse to lose 3-0 to the Galaxy as they did Sunday, but the Sounders took it in the bloomers on this ragingly goofy aggregate-goal format.

What the MLS home-and-home series comes down to is this: First goal wins.

The team that trails first tends to take more risks, because it's harder to play catch-up in soccer than it is any other sport, including marriage. The aggregate-goal format merely aggravates the unfairness.

You don't have to believe me. Listen to Bruce Arena, the longtime Galaxy coach and participant in many a boot rodeo, after the match Sunday.

"Obviously, the goal at the end of the half was certainly huge, and made a big difference," Arena said. "Seattle pressed to get a goal, [which] opened things up and gave some talented players a little bit of room to help us get the second and third goals.”

To recap Sunday's events, the Galaxy's premier scorer, Robbie Keane, popped in a header in the single extra minute of first-half stoppage time for a 1-0 lead, which floored the Sounders. Desperate, they attacked, made defensive mistakes and let the Galaxy score in the 64th and 67th minutes.

As the Sounders deflated — 3-0 in soccer is like 40-0 in the NFL — the Galaxy had at least two more good scoring chances that easily could have made it 5-0 heading into the second game at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Clink.

While it can be said that the Sounders had only themselves to blame for the first goal, the fact is that the carry-over of a single mistake ripples through the second leg to an unfairly burdensome degree. And when the home-field advantage is defined by MLS rules as hosting the second game instead of the first, well . . .  the league has it bloody backward.

Make the playoffs best-of-three or a single game. Anything else is as clumsy as taking a piano down five flights of stairs.

This season, the Sounders' finish gave them the No. 3 seed. They beat No. 2, Real Salt Lake, which gave them "home-field advantage" in the second round over any lower-seeded opponent. At No. 4 was the Galaxy, which did a fine thing in beating No. 1 San Jose, but that cannot alter the playoff reward. LA's lower seed from a lesser regular-season record should have had a negative consequence, but instead favored LA by getting the first match at home against Seattle.

This is a bogus set-up for any team. What makes it galling for Seattle is that MLS, for the first time, extended the aggregate-goal format into the second round. Previously it was only a first-round aberration, designed to get a home game for every playoff participant. But instead of outgrowing that baby-league strategy, MLS doubled down.

Seattle has whiffed on the agg-goal format its first three years in the playoffs. When the breakthrough came last week against RSL, the Sounders were rewarded with two days off between road games in two cities.

None of this is part of discussion at the moment for the Sounders, who are faced with an adrenalized task akin to the hoary bromide of a mother lifting a car off her child. Coach Sigi Schmid is attempting to hose down the panic.

"We have to understand that we have to score three goals in 90 minutes," he said. "We don’t have to score three goals in five minutes or score three goals in 15. And for sure we don’t have to go hog wild scoring goals and giving up goals, because then we just have to score more goals.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 13, 11:57 p.m. Inappropriate

It is really disappointing that the Sounders lost the first leg badly but I do not think it can be blamed on the playoff format

1. Home and away fixtures are the norm in the knockout stages of the European club competitions and there the statistics clearly show that it is a slight advantage to play the first leg away.

2. The Sounders played successive fixtures on Thursday and Sunday 3-days apart. Again that is pretty standard in European club football where teams regularly play twice a week.

If Major League Soccer wants to be a major league it is not unreasonable for them to emulate the conventions of the major club competitions.

WSDW

Posted Wed, Nov 14, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Gee, WSDW, you sound like someone who actually knows something about soccer/football.

Unlike Mr. Thiel, who just fakes it.

bigyaz

Posted Wed, Nov 14, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the European clubs have it backwards, too.

If nothing else, just calling the games 'fixtures' sounds silly.
Fixtures are things like sinks and built-in lamps.

Two days of rest (while travelling, mind you) was not adequate and certainly played a role.

jeffro

Posted Wed, Nov 14, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Despite always doing well in the regular season the Sounders' record in home and away MLS playoff games is 1-3 and may soon be 1-4. Perhaps the team isn't quite experienced enough to do well in playoffs. Again if you look at European club competitions it is very apparent that experience counts.

Blaming it on the the need to travel or the lack of time is ridiculous. LA and Salt Lake are about 2 hours away and the team is not dealing with a strange culture, foreign food or the need to figure out what confusing words like 'fixture' mean. LA was playing its 3rd game in 8 days whereas Seattle was playing its 3rd game in 10 days. If the Seattle players were physically in worse shape than LA's, then the Sounders organization need to look at their conditioning program before the next season starts.

WSDW

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