By the early 1960s, the European football confederation had noticed a troubling pattern in its cup competitions. Away teams seemed uninterested in attacking.
The home teams had such an advantage that it was preferable to head home trailing 1-0 or 2-0 than to risk a more lopsided defeat by pushing forward.
UEFA came up with an incentive for traveling teams to play more aggressively. If two teams finished with the same number of goals at the end of 180 minutes, the team with the most away goals would advance. This also reduced the chance of costly and time-consuming match replays – used in many tournaments at the time when teams were level after two matches.
The away-goals rule was first used in the 1965-66 Cup Winners’ Cup and was phased into the European Cup starting in 1967-68. By the early 1970s, the rule was widely adopted in tournaments across the continent.
Wenger Leads Push to Abolish Away-Goals Rule
In recent years, the away-goals rule has been placed under the microscope. The most notable and outspoken critic is Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. At a UEFA conference for managers in 2008, he presented his argument for why the rule should be abolished. He was quoted in the Guardian:
I personally feel the weight of the away goal is too heavy now tactically – it was created 42 years ago at a stage when the teams that went abroad just defended. But now when you play in your own stadium without conceding you have a good chance to go through. So it has reversed the situation.
An article on bettingexpert.com attempted to quantify the advantage teams have by winning a first leg at home, finding truth in Wenger’s complaint that the away-goals rule only reverses the script and forces the home team to play defensively.
By their calculations, a team that hosts the first leg and wins 1-0 has a 52 percent chance of advancing but only a 36 percent chance of advancing with a 3-2 win. Without the away-goals rule, any one-goal win at home in the first leg gives that team a 41 percent chance of advancing.
Wenger claimed his idea received a warm reception from other managers, but of course, the rule remains unchanged four years later. Many sportswriter have agreed with his assessment and point to examples of the away-goals rule backfiring, especially following the shocking results in last year’s UEFA Champions League semifinals.
In the second legs of those semifinals, Chelsea earned an early away goal and defended with numbers against Barcelona despite a 2-2 aggregate score, while Real Madrid played conservatively with a 3-3 aggregate score as they worried about conceding a goal that would have essentially counted double.
Following those matches, ESPNSTAR columnist Jonathan Wilson argued the rule has outlived its usefulness. He pointed out that in the mid-1960s away teams only won 16 percent of games in European competition, while that number has increased to more than 30 percent in the last five years.
“It is a bad rule that makes no sense in modern football,” he stated.
The argument goes that stadiums have generally improved as have modes of travel, so playing at another venue should not be as difficult. Others have noted that is not always true in other parts of the world where factors like elevation, travel distances and weather can vary greatly.
Lack of Offense Leads to Push for Away-Goals Rule in MLS
Major League Soccer has never used an away-goals rule for its post-season playoffs. That became a central point of discussion this weekend due to several low-scoring matches.
On Friday night, Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders played to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their conference semifinals series. D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls remained scoreless for 60 minutes Saturday evening before the teams traded own goals. On Sunday, there were three goals in two games – one on a goalkeeping error in the 94th minute. Many fans noticed a lack of urgency in the opening legs of the conference semifinals and felt away goals would help.
There is some data to support this notion. The South American confederation began using an away-goals tiebreaker for Copa Libertadores in 2005. Comparing the four years before the change to the four years following, goals per game in the first leg jumped from 2.32 to 2.77, while goals in the second leg decreased slightly from 2.92 to 2.83.
MLS Rejects Away-Goals Rule to Give Advantage to Better Seed
Unlike most tournaments where fairness is an objective, MLS attempts to award “home-field advantage” to the team with the better regular-season record by allowing them to host the second leg. This is the reason the league has rejected an away-goals rule.
“We don’t use away goals because we want to provide as much advantage as possible to the better-seeded team,” Will Kuhns, Major League Soccer’s director of communications, told Soccer Perspectives on Tuesday. “It’s our viewpoint that not having away goals and having the opportunity for extra time to be played after the second leg at the better seed’s venue provides that advantage.”
The away-goals rule reduces the opportunity for a match to go to extra time and potentially penalty kicks. Ironically, one of the biggest criticisms of the rule historically is that it may benefit the team that hosts the second leg since the first host wastes its home match defending, while the second host knows if it needs to attack.
Kuhns acknowledged that away goals remain hotly debated and the subject of regular discussion at MLS headquarters. However, the league is not concerned by the lack of first-leg goals.
“We’ve been very happy with the level of soccer as well as the amount of entertainment and drama that have come from our playoff games,” he said.
First Legs Historically Low-Scoring in MLS
Since MLS switched to two-legged playoff series in 2003, there have been 1.61 goals per game on average in the first leg (prior to this year) and 2.53 goals per game in the second (not including goals scored in extra time).
Combining the two legs, these series have had 2.07 goals per game compared to the regular-season average of 2.66 goals per game during that same period. In post-season one-off matches (preliminary round and conference championships prior to this season), there have been 2.23 goals per game.
Second legs are generally expected to have more offense as the trailing teams push. In the UEFA Champions League during the last four years, first legs have had an average of 2.39 goals compared to 2.84 goals in the second legs for an increase of only 18.8 percent – nowhere near the 54.3 percent disparity in MLS.
MLS seeding can help explain why first-leg matches are so low-scoring. Weaker teams are less likely to score many goals even at home, while stronger teams feel they can open up at home in the second leg.
This issue has been magnified by MLS scheduling the first legs on the weekend and second legs during the middle of the week when they get less attention. However, Kuhns said they do not worry about the day of the week as much in the playoffs as they do in the regular season because they believe fans understand the importance of these matches. The real question is the effect this could have on the casual fan.