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MLS Tiebreakers: Punishing Those Who Don't Lose

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Tiebreakers aren't used very often in MLS, but when they are, they don't help the cause.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

MLSSoccer.com writer, and everyone's favorite "Instant Replay" announcer, Simon Borg wrote up a post reminding everyone of MLS's tiebreakers in 2013. For those who don't know, or forgot, MLS deviated from the traditional Goal Difference stat last year, and instead opted to use Goals For as the first tiebreaker. The reasoning was simple, encourage teams to play for a win instead of a draw. Obviously with GF, that's a little bit harder to encourage as better teams can make up for draws by pounding the weaker teams in the league. In Borg's article, he quotes Nelson Rodriguez, MLS' Executive VP for Competition.

"The object of the game is to win, whether at home or on the road," Rodriguez said. "The competition committee felt it was important to reward those teams who as a collective whole have won more games than their opposing teams."

Fair play to MLS for wanting to encourage going for wins. I agree 100% with their philosophy on that. In addition, since MLS is currently playing an unbalanced schedule, it's truly hard to find a good tiebreaker to use. However, the method of Total Wins, in my opinion, leaves a lot to be desired. To demonstrate how I feel this is a weak tiebreaker, I'm going to use the example of the Seattle Sounders (who clinched a spot via this tiebreaker), the Colorado Rapids, and the San Jose Earthquakes.

# Team Pts W L T GF GA GD
4 x-Seattle 51 15 12 6 41 41 0
5 Colorado 51 14 10 9 45 35 10
6 San Jose 48 13 11 9 33 41 -8

First, let me explain how Seattle has clinched a spot. The best San Jose can do is 51 points if they beat FC Dallas on Saturday. If Seattle loses to the LA Galaxy and Colorado loses to the Vancouver Whitecaps, there will be a 3 way tie at 51 points. Since San Jose can only reach 14 wins, that means that Seattle beats both San Jose & Colorado with 15 wins, thus they are guaranteed to appear in the playoffs. Then, Colorado, unless San Jose can make up the 12 GF difference, will be number 5.

I'm going to provide an example of how Total Wins hurts a team. Assume a 1-0 loss for Seattle & Colorado, and 8-0 win for San Jose, which is really the only way this example works. Here's how the standings would look:

# Team Pts W L T GF GA GD
4 x-Seattle 51 15 13 6 41 42 -1
5 x-Colorado 51 14 11 9 45 36 9
6 San Jose 51 14 11 9 41 41 0

If MLS was using the traditional Goal Difference tiebreaker, San Jose would be in at Seattle's expense, and honestly, I would be OK with that. My biggest problem with Total Wins, as can be illustrated by my example, is that while it helps teams that win, it punishes teams that <bold> don't lose. While everyone can say that winning is best, why is losing better than a draw? If San Jose can manage to lose 2 less games than Seattle, and wind up with a better (in this example) GD, why should they be left out? Looking at those lines, I could make the case of San Jose being a better team since they managed to not lose as much. Sure, they won one game less, but something has to be said for drawing a game. I mean, why else would a team earn 1 point for a draw if it wasn't worth something?

The point of soccer isn't just to win by scoring goals. It's to score as much as possible while holding your opponent to as close to 0 as possible. All the changes in the last two years have done is to diminish the work done on the defensive side of the ball. You can tell me that they aren't intentionally doing that, and you may be right, but it is a side effect at least. MLS should let the standings speak for themselves, and celebrate success while not punishing teams for not losing. In an unbalanced schedule, no stat will truly be a tiebreaker to say which team is better, but using Goal Difference, like the rest of the world, at least shows how good (or bad) a team was against their opponents.