Thiel: A dumb playoff system thwarts Sounders

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on November 15, 2012 at 2:30 AM

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid, celebrated in a tifo before a game against the Timbers this summer, will need a few cards up his sleeve to overcome the Galaxy Sunday. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Explain to me again, Major League Soccer, how the higher-seeded Sounders' set-up the past weekend constituted a home-field advantage:

Win on the road in Salt Lake Thursday. Fly home Friday. Fly to Los Angeles Saturday. Lose on the road Sunday. Give the winning team a week to rest its aged bones while practicing standing across the goal shoulder-to-shoulder for 90 minutes.

That is a wretched way to determine a champion.

Not saying the circumstances were a sufficient excuse to lose 3-0 to the Galaxy as they did Sunday, but the Sounders took it in the bloomers on this ragingly goofy aggregate-goal format.

What the MLS home-and-home series comes down to is this: First goal wins.

The team that trails first tends to take more risks, because it's harder to play catch-up in soccer than it is any other sport, including marriage. The aggregate-goal format merely aggravates the unfairness.

You don't have to believe me. Listen to Bruce Arena, the longtime Galaxy coach and participant in many a boot rodeo, after the match Sunday.

"Obviously, the goal at the end of the half was certainly huge, and made a big difference," Arena said. "Seattle pressed to get a goal, (which) opened things up and gave some talented players a little bit of room to help us get the second and third goals.”

To recap Sunday's events, the Galaxy's premier scorer, Robbie Keane, popped in a header in the single extra minute of first-half stoppage time for a 1-0 lead, which floored the Sounders. Desperate, they attacked, made defensive mistakes and let the Galaxy score in the 64th and 67th minutes.

As the Sounders deflated -- 3-0 in soccer is like 40-0 in the NFL -- the Galaxy had at least two more good scoring chances that easily could have made it 5-0 heading into the second game at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Clink.

While it can be said that the Sounders had only themselves to blame for the first goal, the fact is that the carry-over of a single mistake ripples through the second leg to an unfairly burdensome degree. And when the home-field advantage is defined by MLS rules as hosting the second game instead of the first, well . . .  the league has it bloody backward.

This season, the Sounders' finish gave them the No. 3 seed. They beat No. 2 Real Salt Lake, which gave them "home-field advantage" in the second round over any lower-seeded opponent. At No. 4 was the Galaxy, which did a fine thing in beating No. 1 San Jose, but that does not alter the playoff reward. LA's lower seed from a lesser regular-season record should have had a negative consequence, but instead favored LA by getting the first match at home against Seattle.

This is a bogus set-up for any team. What makes it galling for Seattle is that MLS for the first time extended the aggregate-goal format into the second round. Previously it was only a first-round aberration, designed to get a home gate for every playoff participant. But instead of outgrowing that baby-league strategy, MLS doubled down.

Seattle has whiffed on the agg-goal format its first three years in the playoffs. When the breakthrough came last week against RSL, the Sounders were rewarded with two days off between road games in two cities.

Make the post-season a best-of-three series or a single game. This home-and-home business is more awkward than moving a piano down five flights of stairs.

None of this is part of discussion of the moment for the Sounders, who are faced with an adrenalized task akin to the hoary bromide of a mother lifting a car off her child. Coach Sigi Schmid is attempting to hose down the panic.

"We have to understand that we have to score three goals in 90 minutes," he said. "We don’t have to score three goals in five minutes or score three goals in 15. And for sure we don’t have to go hog wild scoring goals and giving up goals, because then we just have to score more goals.

"It’s important that we come out with a good mentality, a good work rate, a good effort, but also a good plan and patience."

Is that all? While they're at it, maybe add in some kindness and courtesy to their elders, like the Galaxy's 37-year-old superstar, David Beckham -- should he deign to fuss himself by making the trip to Seattle.

LA hardly needs him. They would be as well off to hire Kim Kardashian, turn her around and have her ample backside in goal to fill any gaps between 10 teammates standing in a row to deny the Sounders.

Absurd? No more than the aggregate-goal format and a home-field advantage that isn't.

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