The MLS Playoffs are going to be, well, different this year. The league has implemented the "away goals rule" tiebreaker for the first time in league history.
The away goals rule is a method of breaking ties in soccer when teams play each other twice - once at each team`s home pitch. By virtue of the away goals rule, the team that scores more goals on their opponents pitch or "away from home" will win if the scores are otherwise equal on aggregate score - the scores of both matches added together. While the rule is nothing new to the soccer world, it does change things in regards to the MLS postseason.
As the away goals rule becomes a part of the 2014 postseason, we are going to see changing roles of the teams at each stage of the two-leg fixtures. In the past each goal scored was equivalent to another - none were more valuable than the other. A byproduct of the old equal goals rule was that away opponents would come to the home stadium of their opponent ready to sit back and defend.
The pressure was on the home team to produce a result. Hoping to absorb the pressure and get out of their opponent's stadium with a draw, teams would focus on winning on their own turf. The old rule mostly resulted in home teams focusing on more attacking soccer with away teams sitting back and counter-attacking.
The new rule reverses those roles. The new away goals rule puts the pressure on the away team to produce a result. The home team, under this new rule, is occupied with maintaining a clean sheet and taking it to their opponent on their turf. A byproduct of the new rule is that away teams come to their opponent's stadium with more attacking tactics, realizing that an away goal could be their ticket to the next round.
Just like other home teams in the first leg of the Conference Semifinals, Real Salt Lake came into Saturday`s match focused on keeping a clean sheet above all else. Before the 0-0 draw against the LA Galaxy, RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said, "We've got to keep it zero at home . . . It's so important now because away goals mean something."
The New York Red Bulls were able to come away with a 2-0 win at home, keeping that much desired clean sheet. With a big win over their Atlantic Cup rivals in their rear-view mirror, the Red Bulls will focus on scoring at least one away goal in order to put the final nail in the coffin of the top seed in the East.
Other teams were not as lucky as the Claret-and-Cobalt and the Red Bulls. FC Dallas was able to force Supporters` Shield winner the Seattle Sounders to a 1-1 draw in Fresno, Texas. The Sounders will return home with an edge thanks to a 54th minute Ozzie Alonso goal. In order to advance, Dallas will have to win the match or settle for a draw of two or more goals, while Seattle can settle for a scoreless draw.
Third place Columbus Crew will also be at the mercy of the new rule. The Crew played at home for the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the red-hot New England Revolution. Just like RSL, the Crew spoke of the importance of maintaining a shutout at home. Playing more defensively, the Crew came out and got whooped by the Revs 4-2, with the Crew maintaining a strand of hope through a late PK goal from Federico Higuaín.
The Crew employed attacking, possession-based tactics, but the counter-attacks of New England stretched the Crew beyond repair. Conceding four goals is something hard to come back from in any postseason situation, let alone a situation where away goals are more valuable than home goals. With his club making their first playoff appearance since 2011, Columbus striker Justin Meram said, "All the fans and everybody were all excited for us, and we disappointed everybody. Giving up four goals, it's just unacceptable, especially in the format where away goals count. That killed us."
Meanwhile, New England was ecstatic about the win. A two-goal victory is always a great margin to win by, but, with the new away goals rule in place, the Revolution would still advance even if the Crew win 2-0 or even 3-1 in Boston. New England are sitting pretty with this new rule in place.
Real Salt Lake looked to follow the same fate, but Saturday's match was a tale of two halves. LA Galaxy put Real Salt Lake under a lot of pressure with the wind at their backs in the first half, but RSL came out swinging in the second. Under extreme pressure in the second half, the Galaxy looked almost destined to concede but alas they held strong.
While this result was huge for RSL, the Galaxy also were content with a draw. Despite repeatedly stated how important getting an away goal was in the pregame articles and videos, Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan came out saying that a scoreless draw benefits the Galaxy. It seems that since the Galaxy ended up not getting what they wanted they had to settle - unlike Real Salt Lake.
Real Salt Lake will be headed to the StubHub Center a week from today and we can expect a RSL team favoring attack minded soccer to take the pitch. With a clean sheet at home, RSL will look to capitalize on the new away-goal rule by slipping one - if not more - past LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jamie Penedo.
While it is up to debate who this scoreless draw benefited more, Real Salt Lake looks to be in control of their own destiny. Real Salt Lake appear to be in the best position of any of the lower seeds going into the second leg of the Conference Semifinals - with the exception of the New York Red Bulls - and they will look to capitalize on it.