MLS Tie-Breaking Rules: We Don't Want the Better Team to Win, Right?

An interesting announcement today from the head honchos at Major League Soccer. The league has, in the middle of their own regular season, announced a change in the tie-breaking rules in the league standings.

Previously, when a team was tied on points with another team, the first tie-breaker was goal difference head-to-head record. Now, to "encourage attacking play", the first tie-breaker will be goals for. These rules are effective immediately, meaning that teams which laboured half the season under one standard are now being told to adjust to a very different one.

This announcement doesn't hugely impact the Vancouver Whitecaps. Vancouver's 26 goals for is pretty bad for a playoff team but so is their -2 goal difference; they're in rough shape by either tie-breaking format, and as for the old head-to-head their ability to beat the Galaxy seems no better than last year. The biggest benefactor is the league's marquee team and defending champion the Los Angeles Galaxy, who are second in the Western Conference in goals for by a sizable margin but have a goal differential that's much more middle-of-the-pack because they can't defend to save their lives.

I'm sure that's just a coincidence of course. No, seriously; as rustled up by Sounder at Heart, according to Major League Soccer's Will Kuhns the change was raised in January and approved in April, so the Galaxy's inability to defend can't have influenced it. This isn't a conspiracy.

It's just stupid and Mickey Mouse on every level. It's a deliberate turn away from rewarding teams that are the best at soccer. It's old North American Soccer League stuff, announced at a really bad time, for the sake of "increasing offense" in a league where no playoff team is averaging as low as a goal for per game.

Why is MLS always bringing up these comic-book ideas to make their league about anything but the best teams winning? Why all the MLS All-Star Games and the wild innovations? Why can't they just play soccer?

The idea of breaking ties by goals for is stupid because it doesn't reward the best team. That's the idea, right? It's why we give teams more points for winning 1-0 than losing 5-4; because the team that won 1-0 did a better job.

Defending is a skill, even if it's one the Galaxy have forgotten about. There's no dispute here. In fact, goal difference is often a better proxy for a team's overall ability than points, but of course winning and losing is the essence of the game so nobody actually kicks up a fuss about ranking teams by points. However, goals for shows nothing but a team's ability to play half the game.

This is a fundamentally unserious move by a team trying to convince us it's serious. I've rambled about this in the past few weeks on topics like MLS's academy rules and the MLS All-Star Game; this just has nothing to do with soccer. It's all about trying to glitz up a product that's in no need of glitz; get more attention for a league that's improving both on and off the field by leaps and bounds in spite of MLS's best efforts.

Are there a lot of teams that could win games 3-1 trying to win them 1-0 instead because "we just need to keep our goal difference up"? Certainly not! If a manager is up 1-0 and needs to decide between risking it to go for more goals, or settling back and clinging to the lead, this new rule will not change his arithmetic since getting the three points is so much more vital than getting the goals for. If a manager is up 3-0, maybe he'll throw guys forward to win 5-2 instead but when does that happen, and when would "goals for" be his priority in that situation rather than "rest the core guys and avoid injuries"?

Will this boost offense? It's hard to imagine how it can add goals to any significant degree; over long seasons teams play for win, not for tiebreaks. It'll mean that unbalanced, less competitive teams are now more likely to make the playoffs, which is not actually a good thing. And even if MLS's scoring does go up by 0.2 goals per game or some other unrealistically large number, will that convince the Eurosnobs who think that MLS is an inferior brand of soccer, or the good ol' boys who think that soccer isn't a real sport, more concerned with appearances than actual competitiveness? Hell no, it'll prove them both right.

The only meaningful difference this rule makes is that now the quality of your team is less important. How is that a good thing? What's the matter with this stupid league?

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