The Away Goal Final

The grand finale of the Liga MX kicks off once again tonight with the defending champion Leon facing the Tuzos of Pachuca. This anticipated match-up pits two teams with a vastly different temperament. The obvious juxtaposition of the consistent force of Leon and the flamboyant wild-card of Pachuca make for a final of intrigue. Coming up with a clear picture of how these 180 minutes will play out is a near impossibility. This could go plenty of different ways.

Yet, for all the differences in these two teams, there are many more characteristics that unite them. These are two teams unafraid to attack and to unleash shots from anywhere on the field. They both feature some of the brightest young Mexican talent of the moment with some cagey veterans in defense. The fact that both teams share ownership (Grupo Pachuca) should yield some commonality.

However, nothing seems more poignant than the way these two clubs laid waste to the regular season. Actually, to be clear, they laid waste to the relevance of the regular season. Pachuca (the 6-seed) and Leon (the 8-seed) didn't exactly light the world on fire during their regular season campaigns. Each finished with a mediocre record, Pachuca at 7-3-7 and Leon at 6-5-6. At 24 and 23 points respectively, Pachuca and Leon barely snuck in to the playoffs. In fact, Leon required a loss from Morelia at Puebla (shocking) and Chivas losing at home (not at all shocking) in the final day's action to grab that final playoff spot.  Pachuca needed a win in their final match at Queretaro to qualify. They found themselves 3-0 down after 70 minutes, but found a way to score four in the final 20 minutes to get the improbable win, locking down a playoff spot.

This is not to say that these two clubs are undeserving of their spot in the final. They are certainly worthy to be in this position. The caveat is how little is required to become the champion.

Teams with a .500 record competing for a title isn't a completely unheard of premise. The NBA and NFL have their share of teams that qualify for postseason play with less than impressive resumes. That's just playoffs. If you get in, you have a chance. The better team doesn't always win, but the team with luck on their side, the one with the clutch performance, or the one that "peaks at the right time" usually does. With that being said, the nature of soccer makes playoffs even more of an uncertainty. Low-scoring games that can be flipped from one errant pass or hard foul tend to more variable than others. There's no seven game series or high-scoring affair that allows the cream to rise to the top. Crazy things can happen and when they do, the game can be easily swung.     

So, yes, of course the Liguilla is always going to be a wild affair. Playoffs are uncertain and soccer makes them even more so. The manner in which both these finalists have progressed through the playoffs has exceeded the vagaries of the playoff crap shoot. Both Leon and Pachuca advanced past an opponent by the Away Goal Rule.

The Away Goal Rule is the worst thing in the world. I am using only a moderate amount of hyperbole. Honestly, there are a few things that are more terrible: unprovoked maiming, Billy Joel, Chepo's tactical decisions. To be more exact, the Away Goal Rule is a farce.  The Away Goal Rule is a tiebreaker used in two-legged fixtures. When the aggregate score is tied over the two matches, the team with the most amount of goals in their 'away' match in deemed the winner. Hence, goals scored in the opponent's stadium are more valuable than scored at 'home'.  This makes sense on the surface; it should be harder to score on the road after all. The frequency of aggregate draws in matches that could be fairly low scoring, makes this a rule that comes in to play all too often, though.

I do understand why this rule is often used in tournaments such as the Champions League. Tournaments that take place in the midweek with travel can't afford to be playing extra time or additional matches to determine which team advances. The draw must be broken in some way, and it's probably better than shooting penalty kicks. This does not, with any amount of sanity, give cause to use the Away Goal Rule in a postseason tournament. Think about it. The purpose of the rule is to determine which team should advance in a tournament situation without adding any additional game play. Why not look at the entire regular season to determine who should get the benefit of the doubt or the extra credit?

Leon and Cruz Azul ended their two quarterfinal matches on a 3-3 draw. Leon was able to advance because it scored two in the second leg in Mexico City even though both matches ended in a draw (1-1 in the first match and 2-2 in the second). Leon was given the right to advance due to this rule instead of looking at all at the previous seventeen matches played by these teams. Cruz Azul were the one-seed, and Leon was the eight-seed. Cruz Azul finished thirteen points higher than Leon in the season that led to this Liguilla. This is irrelevant because of the Away Goal Rule.

In the semifinal, Pachuca faced Santos Laguna (who advanced past Club America on the Away Goal Rule). Pachuca won the first home leg 2-0 and took the two-goal advantage to Torreon. In the second leg, Santos scored early but then were dealt a bad hand when they lost Oswaldo Sanchez, their goalkeeper, to an early red card. They were now down a man and soon conceded two more goals. They were behind four goals and playing with ten. Despite this, Santos mounted a second half comeback scoring three more goals to draw even with Pachuca in the final minutes of the match. The two matches ended with an aggregate draw of 4-4, but Pachuca advanced because Santos didn't score any "away goals" in the first leg. Santos was the higher seed in the Liguilla because they had a better season than Pachuca, but Pachuca gets the benefit of the doubt because they scored more goals in the right stadium.  

These were the rules that everyone knew existed. Pachuca and Leon played great games and earned a spot as much as their opponents - so long as you completely forget the regular season that just occurred. The Away Goal Rule ensures that this playoff, where nearly half the teams in the league qualify, renders the regular season even more meaningless than it was already threatened with being.

They could play extra time. They could take in to account the record of the teams involved. They could and should do anything but using this arbitrary rule.

Leon and Pachuca should make for a great final to this tournament. I will surely be watching with great anticipation. We should just completely disassociate it from the Clausura 2014 season. It's unrelated.   


** photo is used under a Creative Commons license from Ingrid Eulenfan

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