The Myth of the Low Scoring Playoffs
|Last season in MLS, we were treated to playoffs that saw numerous upsets culminating in the worst team in the running, the Los Angeles Galaxy, taking the championship. Unpredictable, yes. Too many teams? An unfair system? Possibly. You can make plenty of arguments that the current system is not optimal.|
However, the one thing I will not even listen to is the argument that the playoffs are low scoring. After two scoreless draws in the opening weekend (COL-DAL, CHI-DC), people started complaining about the lack of goals, and blamed the system. 'It encourages teams to bunker in the first game,' they said.
Yes, last season's playoffs were low scoring, that's a fact. And yes, over past three years the aggregate quarterfinal series have been lower scoring than the single elimination games (2.29 vs 3.22). However, last year it was the exact opposite as the knockout games were devoid of goals, and it's important to note that there's been only 9 knockout games vs 24 aggregate games. The current system has only been around for three years. That's not a long time, and I think overall it's a little too early to make any judgments there.
Especially since the first two years saw their fair share of goals. It's short-sighted to consider the playoff system as broken, because last year was the exception to the rule. Last season's playoffs had a goals per game average of 2.09, way lower than the regular season average of 2.87. However, that decrease of 27% was the largest in MLS history by 10%.
Let's look at why the MLS playoffs are not low scoring:
1) It is normal for scoring to drop in the playoffs in MLS. In eight of ten seasons, the amount of scoring in the playoffs has been less than in the regular season. The exceptions were 1999 and 2003. Overall, the average playoff game has 7.4% fewer goals than the average regular season game. In 2006, MLS has averaged 2.62 goals per game. If that pattern holds, this year's postseason should average 2.43. Keep that in mind before you start complaining.
A history of MLS regular season and playoff scoring:
As you can see here, two of the "best" four years came in 2003 and 2004, the first two years of the new system. So unless there's another big decrease this year, I would say last year was the exception. It seems to balance out overall. Take a look at this table showing how the three MLS playoff formats compare:
Basically the exact same thing on the field. Of course, the current system makes it much easier off the field with no Wednesday games, no "if necessary" games, and knowing the dates ahead of time.
2) It is normal for scoring to drop in the playoffs in American sports. It's pretty much the industry standard. I went and collected the scoring data for the major sports leagues in the USA over the last ten seasons, to compare to what's happened in MLS. I also included the World Cup's difference between the group stage and knockout round (1998-2006). Check it out:
Other than the NFL, all show a decrease. That makes sense because bad teams don't make the playoffs (usually). MLB had a decrease in 8/10 years, WNBA in 8/10, NBA in 9/10, NHL in 9/9. Again, this is a normal thing in sports. MLS is not alone.
Here's the individual data for each league:
(some WNBA figures may be slightly off because for a few seasons I could only find team averages and not actual total points)