By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 10, 2019) US Soccer Players - On Tuesday, Liverpool executed a comeback for the ages against Lionel Messi and Barcelona. Anfield pulsated from the opening whistle to the moment Divock Origi side-footed Trent Alexander-Arnold’s smart quick corner in the net, then erupted in celebration at full time.
On Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur fell behind by two goals before charging to a heart-stopping series victory at Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam. Spurs dug themselves a significant hole in the first half, then reversed their fortunes with a brilliant second-half performance. An away goal that Ajax scored in London intensified the pressure on the English club on their trip to the Continent.
Either comeback would have been remarkable. Two in a week in as many days stretches belief. The Champions League semifinal second-legs of 2019 represent the absolute best of what tournament soccer can offer. For most of the world, the stories written in Liverpool and Amsterdam will leave indelible marks that will echo through their sports experience.
The magic inherent in what Liverpool and Tottenham achieved flows directly from the format of the semifinal clashes. The stage was set for Liverpool’s triumph by the Reds’ disappointing defeat in Barcelona the week before. Overcoming the Spanish giants would have been an achievement even without the deficit heading into the second-leg, but the emotional swing that was even available deepens the impact.
The best sports stories happen through the distance between expectation and outcome. The farther a team travels between those two poles, the most winning resonates. Underdog stories appeal for that exact reason. While neither Liverpool nor Tottenham were underdogs at this point of the Champions League, the circumstances carried over from the first 90 minutes of a two-legged series set them up in the role.
What happened in the Champions League this week is interesting in light of the new MLS Cup playoff format set to debut this season. After utilizing a two-leg format in various configurations for the entirety of its history, MLS is moving to a single-elimination setup for 2019.
Seven teams in each conference will make the postseason, with the 2nd through 7th-place teams facing off against one another. The top seed will get a bye to the second round, where they will play the lowest remaining seed. Every round will consist of one game. No more aggregate goal totals. No more away goal tiebreakers.
The logic for the switch is relatively sound, at least at it pertains to concern about scheduling. Major League Soccer has long had a problem with the playoff season straddling a FIFA international date that kills momentum. With the league becoming more and more relevant as a home for international caliber players, the schedule needed changing.
Extending the season into December gave the appearance of a league that played games that count for all but two months on the calendar. That was a facade considering how long the playoffs lasted. Nobody benefitted from a cold weather city hosting MLS Cup in December.
The new format addresses those problems moving the MLS Cup final ahead of the November FIFA break and worsening weather in northern cities. It does so by turning every playoff matchup in a one-off, with the higher seed hosting the knockout game.
At least nominally, the new format will also give teams a bit more incentive to achieve in the regular season. Home field advantage in a single 90-minute match looms large. Especially with Major League Soccer’s recent history of games tilting in the direction of the home side.
Let’s consider what MLS is losing by eliminating the two-legged format. If the 2019 Champions League semifinals aren’t example enough, there's the league’s own history of second-leg comebacks.
Perhaps the most celebrated was the San Jose Earthquakes comeback against the LA Galaxy in 2003. LA was up 2-0 on aggregate after their home leg then tacked on two more goals before the 15th minute of the second-leg in San Jose. The Quakes then put on a furious rally, scoring four goals in regulation and a goal in extra time to win the series. Like Tuesday’s match at Anfield or Spurs race against the clock in Amsterdam, the proceedings dripped with dramatic tension from start to finish.
Without the first-leg lead, the Galaxy took to Northern California the playoff clash plays out very differently. A single-game, winner-take-all showdown can have its own variety of theater, but it doesn’t quite feel the same.
The matter of strategy will be a focus of this coming playoff season. For both Liverpool and Tottenham, the need to score goals in the second-leg dictated an attacking approach that opened up the game. It increased the possibility of a compelling, entertaining contest. With two legs to navigate and both teams getting a chance to play at home, the chances are that there will be more than one swing in the incentive to attack.
In a single elimination game, the incentive lies more in preventing goals than scoring them. Despite what analytics and impertinent fans might say, the coaching instinct in knockout matches is to delay defeat for as long as possible. Keeping the opponent bottled up necessarily pulls players from the attack and limits the amount of space available for exciting goal-focused play. When two teams choose to be reactive, cagey, stodgy matches ensue. The possibilities for late drama plus extra time penalties still exist, but they’re not as rich.
There are no universal truths for these matches. What the soccer world witnessed this week in Liverpool and Amsterdam is hardly typical. If that sort of drama was the norm, this year’s Champions League wouldn’t be notable and there’d be no reason to elevate to historical greatness.
MLS might not miss out on much by eliminated two-legged ties. The league’s talent level and tactical sophistication have risen substantially in recent years. That might be enough to ensure that the playoffs are not tepid and underwhelming due to an abundance of conservative game plans.
The playoffs of MLS past didn’t always deliver the way that this year’s Champions League has. However, by moving away from the two-legged series, the league eliminates the possibility outright. Liverpool and Spurs reminded us what can be when the first leg sets the stage for an incredible run from longshot to shocking victory.
This is still MLS. Nothing stays the same for long. Who knows? Maybe the format will change again in a few years and two-legged series will make their own version an unlikely comeback.
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Photo by Michael Pimentel - ISIPhotos.com