Recent results shine light on away goals rule, raising question of whether soccer still needs it

InterTottenham (Getty)

By MIKE McCALL

Two days, two European competitions, two impressive comebacks undone by the away goals rule.

First, Arsenal notched a 2-0 victory at Bayern Munich on Wednesday, evening their two-legged Champions League Round of 16 clash at three goals each but seeing the German club advance via a 3-1 triumph in London.

Then, Inter Milan nearly completed the biggest turnaround in Europa League history on Thursday, beating Tottenham in a 4-1 extra-time thriller but coming up one goal short. Though each team won 3-0 at home and scored a goal in extra time, Spurs moved on by virtue of not conceding at White Hart Lane.

This is certainly nothing new, as the away goals rule has become ingrained in many areas of the sport since its introduction in 1965, but the tiebreaker has sparked its share of successes and debates.

Created to encourage more attacking play by visiting teams, the rule essentially adds a fraction of value to goals that are scored on the road — a fact that The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson argued is illogical, unfair and ineffective in a column this week.

But it has proponents too. In addition to the Champions League and Europa League, away goals count for more in FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the CONCACAF Champions League and Copa Libertadores, among others. Some, such as the UEFA tournaments and Capital One Cup, even use the rule to settle extra time, despite one team playing more minutes on the road than the other.

For example, Inter only had 90 minutes to snatch an away goal at Tottenham, while Spurs got theirs via Emmanuel Adebayor in the sixth minute of extra time.

MLS has resisted, choosing instead to use extra time and penalty shootouts, but the league does include road goals as a tiebreaker for playoff spots.

Supporters of the rule point to teams having to be more aggressive on the road, and that argument is backed by the balanced results of the Champions League knockout rounds thus far. In the Round of 16 matches, visiting teams won six, drew four and lost six, and only two series have been decided by away goals in the past two years: Bayern over Arsenal, and Marseille over Inter Milan in 2012.

But detractors like Wilson and Zonal Marking say the rule has had a reverse effect, making home teams too defensive for fear of conceding the all-important goal — although it’s easy to imagine road teams playing ultra-defensively under different circumstances.

Of course, there are some situations that are a bit puzzling, like when AC Milan and Inter faced off during the 2003 Champions League semifinals at the shared San Siro.

Eventual champion AC Milan advanced after draws of 0-0 and 1-1, with the second leg coming when AC Milan was the “away” team and more tickets had been allotted to Inter fans.

For an even wilder example, there’s the first round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying in 2010, when the British Virgin Islands agreed to play two matches against the Bahamas in Nassau after their home stadium didn’t meet FIFA standards.

The first leg ended 1-1, and BVI finished the second in dramatic fashion with a 90th-minute penalty kick to force a 2-2 draw, but the goal wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that they were playing at “home” in that match, and the Bahamas advanced.

But there are positives as well. The away goals rule helped produce a thriller during the Seattle Sounders’ CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal win over Tigres on Tuesday. After the Mexican side struck first in Seattle to take a 2-0 lead on aggregate, the Sounders had to push for three to overcome the tiebreaker and move on to the semifinals.

What do you think? Is the away goals rule good for soccer? Is it a break from logic? Do you hope to see an LA Galaxy-Chivas USA playoff series come down to away goals some day?

Share your thoughts below.

This entry was posted in CONCACAF Champions League, European Soccer, Featured. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Recent results shine light on away goals rule, raising question of whether soccer still needs it

  1. beto says:

    personally i don’t like the away goals rule either… make it fare, two 90 min games, followed by extra time and pk’s if necessary.

    • 2tone says:

      I agree.

    • mr coolio says:

      Agreed. The away goal rule is silly and unnecessary. A goal is a goal. If people don’t like the extra time as a tie breaker because it’s too sluggish, there is is a simple fix to that, add more substitutions. Each team should get two more subs if a game goes into overtime.

    • Brolo says:

      Well then it gives an unfair adv to the second team for having home field for et. Only way would be go straight to pk’s

      • B says:

        That is what seeding is for. Higher seed gets the advantage of having the second leg at home. Home-field advantage, just like NFL, NBA and MLB.

    • Nate says:

      In what way is the away goals rule unfair? Both teams have the opportunity to be both the home team in one game and away team in the other game. If it’s extra time that’s unfair you can eliminate it and keep the away goals rule, and still do PKs in case of a tie on away goals. But in fact, I think PKs are a MUCH less fair way to decide a game than away goals, so I think your change would make things much worse.

      Not to mention that you still have the issue of the home team gaining an advantage that the away team doesn’t get the chance at (PKs are done in the second game, so whoever has the home game second would get that advantage) – this would still be unfair.

  2. Spectra says:

    I love the away goal rule. Just yesterday in the Malaga game with 10 minutes left its fun to have the thrill of watching a game where if Porto score they win and if they don’t they lose It makes more possible outcomes more thrilling.

    On the Tottenham and Inter game I think that is a bit unfair with the extra time away goal rule.

    • Tony in Quakeland says:

      I love it too. It forces coaches to make choices. Without it, every visiting team would bunker and counter attack. With it, the incentive to score is too strong.

      Want evidence? Look at the MLS playoffs. With no away goals rule, the top seeded teams sought to merely survie first legs and win the home leg.

    • Pirithous says:

      I don’t fully understand the argument that the away goals rule is especially unfair during extra time. In a world where teams could magically teleport, 15 minutes of extra time could be played at each stadium. But, if you are going to play all 30 minutes at one stadium, there needs to be a counter balance (the fact that the road team gets a boost for a goal in extra time). If you remove the road goal rule in extra time, it swings the balance massively in the favor of the home team of the second leg, since they get all 30 minutes on their own field.

  3. Travis says:

    I think the issue with not having away goals is that would lead to more extra time/PK shootouts and those are simply not good football generally. Yes shootouts are generally exciting but the football in the 30 min of extra time is usually horrid because both teams are gassed. I know it sucks going out to away goals but I am not sure I prefer the alternative.

  4. Dimidri says:

    Part of the reason MLS doesn’t do it is that its playoffs are seeded so the higher team that has the second leg at home has “earned” those extra 30 minutes at home. In series where there is no seeding, like all CL ties after the round of 16, without the away goals rule it would seemingly give that team an unjustified advantage to have those extra 30 minutes at home. Not a huge one, but still something.

    What might work (and result in better CL ties past the round of 16) is to try to implement some sort of seeding system, at its most basic if there are 6 group winners who advance and 2 second place finishers then the 2 are teams 7 and 8 in the seeding and the 6 are 1-6, and then you could use some other tiebreaker (like group stage points) to rank them again. That would encourage teams to play out seemingly meaningless group stage ties when they’ve already clinched, but at the same time doesn’t properly account for the fact that in more balanced groups (some might say of death) the points will be more evenly distributed than in lopsided ones. Then again UEFA doesn’t seem to have a problem ranking second place teams for who gets to play in its 2nd place playoff ties to see who goes to EURO and the World Cup despite them all facing different circumstances (although, to be fair it only excludes the very bottom 2nd place team.)

    • Tony in Quakeland says:

      But in MLS, the top seeded team earns a huge advantage by scoring in the the opening leg with an away goals rule. That would be an incentive to attack.

    • Usa1 says:

      I really like this point you are making and I hadn’t thought about it that way. However-and please correct me if I messed this up- isnt the UCL round of 16 draw somewhat “seeded”. If you win your group don’t you usually have some sort of preference so as not to have to play another group winner? Also if this is not the case is it possibly worth exploring the idea of finding a way to rank every team after each round? Perhaps by points (3 for win, 1 for tie) or by goal differential. Just a thought, but real question is about ucl round of 16-isn’t it seeded somewhat based on group play?
      Great point nonetheless.

    • Usa1 says:

      Haha-my iPad tweaked out. You already addressed the seeding issue. Same wavelength.

  5. Dinho says:

    I like the away goal rule, but here’s maybe a good compromise… The away goal no longer applies when there is extra time needed (i.e. when the tie ends even in aggregate after the 90th minute of the second leg).

    As it stands, the home team is punished in the second leg if there is extra time.

    Thoughts?

    • Dinho says:

      I meant “the away goal rule* no longer applies”

    • Spectra says:

      I sort of agree. I think extra time should be golden goal. That always makes it so nerve racking

    • Pirithous says:

      But remember that the 2nd leg home team has the advantage of getting to play all 30 minutes of extra time on their home field, which can be especially important as fatigue sets in.

  6. Hoops Malone says:

    The only one raising this question is you. This is an ESPN.com-esque headline that is trying too hard to stir the pot (probably because there was nothing else to write about at the moment). This rule will never change, at least in Europe. It adds a different element of excitement to the bracket-style/cup competitions that regular league play does not have, and that other sports do not have.

  7. Tommy says:

    I am fine with the away goal rule, and I agree it serves a purpose. But it should never apply in extra time. If you’re tied after 180 mins, then just play it straight uo for the extra time.

  8. Old School says:

    I really don’t know why it suddenly “shines a light”. I’m a fairly new fan, under 10 years, and this isn’t anything new to me.

    Arsenal were dominated and lost 3-1 at home. I don’t believe because they won 2-0, they are suddenly on equal ground. They didn’t handle their business at home and paid for it. Fair, plain and simple.

    I think the away goal is a fantastic dynamic to a two legged match.

    • robo says:

      Bayern didn’t take care of business at home either. At least Arsenal didn’t get shut out at home.

      I think a 2-0 loss at home is just as bad, if not worse, than a 3-1 loss at home.

      Maybe Bayern were overconfident and didn’t try, but that’s what happens with the away goals rule. Everyone thought the tie was over before the match even started.

      • Pirithous says:

        The away goals rule makes a judgment on that: it states that losing 3-1 at home IS worse than losing 2-0 at home. And 4-2 is worse than 3-1, and 5-3 is worse than 4-2, and so on. Leaking goals at home is worse than not scoring them at home. I tend to agree with the principle, and the rules of the competition clearly define it as what will count.

        It leads to more exciting 1st legs, an incentive for a more offensive approach even on the road, and adds an additional strategic element to a two-legged tie. Plus, it is WAY better than PKs as a tie breaker.

  9. Dean Stell says:

    Love the away goal rule. I mean, the point of tournament soccer is totally different than league play. If the Champion’s League was REALLY about finding the BEST team in Europe, they’d have to take all the teams out of their domestic leagues and play a home-and-away single table season. Tournament is only kinda about finding the best and more about entertainment. I love how the away goal makes it a totally different viewing experience. Take last night when the LA Galaxy played Herediano. They’d gone 0-0 at Herediano last week and when the Galaxy scored to go up 1-0 last night, it felt like a big deal. But….not really, if Herediano had equalized, THEY would have gone through. I love that different dynamic.

  10. Joamiq says:

    I don’t have a problem with it. Yeah, Spurs had an extra 30 minutes to score an away goal… but Inter had an extra 30 minutes at home. Playing 120 minutes on the road and 90 at home of what is essentially a single 210 minute game is obviously a disadvantage, which is balanced by having the away goal count more.

    • Travis says:

      Agreed. You can’t get rid of the away goal rule if one team gets to play an extra 33% at home. That’s unfair. The only alternative would be if you played the extra 30 minutes at a neutral site. Logistically that would suck, though.

  11. beachbum says:

    love the away goal rule. just look at all the gaols and exciting play from the Arsenal and Inter games mentioned!

  12. Ben says:

    Of the problems in soccer, this is not one.

  13. Scott A says:

    Yeah, I’m fine with the away goals rule.

  14. Brett says:

    Totally fine with it, think it keeps teams from wanting to park the bus when they play away.

    If you have a problem with your comeback being undone by the rule, try not allowing goals when you play at home.

  15. jlm says:

    Would much rather see a game decided by away goals than pks.

  16. Scott says:

    Strongly against it. All it does is create cagey 1st legs. Someone above said if you lose 3-1 at home and win 2-0 on the road you AREN’T on equal ground. Actually, simple math says you are. Soccer, the only sport where 3 does not always equal 3.

    • Old School says:

      “Someone above said if you lose 3-1 at home and win 2-0 on the road you AREN’T on equal ground.”

      Except you aren’t.

      Both clubs were aware of the rules going into the match…therefore, there is nothing equal about the performances.

    • mr coolio says:

      I agree a goal is a goal no matter where it is scored. It shouldnt be worth 1 on this site and then 1.2 on another.

    • beachbum says:

      without away goals you get brutally boring first legs with a bunkered away team with no interest in attacking. look no further than the MLS playoffs from last year

  17. Charles says:

    Away goals isn’t as dumb as deciding your league championship by Goal Differential, but it is dang close.

    • Old School says:

      I disagree.

      Goal differential invites attacking/more goals. That’s a good thing, in every respect.

  18. ryan says:

    i would say to keep the away goals rule for only the two 90 min matches… if it is tied and goes into extra time, then any goals don’t get tallied onto the away goals amount. like the spurs match… they had that extra 30 min to get an away goal but i would rather they just count it as a goal and they would have gone to penalties. unfair for inter like that.

  19. Gary Page says:

    Someone did a analytical study across all sports and found out that home teams win something like 60+% of the time. It is always harder to win on the road, whatever the sport, so the away goal makes good sense to me. Plus, I hate penalty shootouts which seem to have nothing to do with which is the better team. I would much rather see a sudden death extra time of unlimited duration until somebody scores. Hate penalty shootouts since they are so arbitrary and often rely on luck as much as anything.

    • mr coolio says:

      It may be true that the home team wins 60% of the time but there is an adjustment for that already. It’s called the home and away series, there is no need to change the worth/weight of a goal. Both have that 60% chance of winning since they both play at home. If you don’t like pks we can replace that with corner kicks. Instead of each team taking 5 pks each team takes 5 corner kicks. I think corner kicks would be the best tie breaker.

  20. manicmessiah says:

    As long as the rules are known ahead of time, I’m okay with almost any tiebreaker.

    Unlike FIFA formulas to choose the seeded teams, which they reverse engineer based on desired results.

  21. PD says:

    What about creating a scenario where the first match cannot end in a draw. Regulation, ET, penalties to decide the winner of first leg. That goal advantage carries over (1-0 win if PKs). Winner of second match has to overcome aggregate to win the tie.

  22. MemRook says:

    How about this for a different take:
    No away goals. If the series ends a tie after both legs, after regulation, make the teams shoot “PKs” and then play extra time. The PK result only stands if the series is still tied after extra time. Maybe having the result of the PK shootout before extra time will inspire the teams to defend/attack better or differently or whathaveyou knowing you can affect the result of the PK with a goal.

  23. biff says:

    this week of European play, with the Arsenal-Bayern and Inter-Tottenham matches, has convinced me that away goal rule should be abolished. I think it is ruining two-game ties and games would be more dynamic without out it. In a two-game tie both teams play an away game and a home game so each have equal opportunities to score. And the away goal rule gives the advantage to the team who plays the first game on the road.