Central Winger: Are cup finals really different from other games?

Conventional wisdom and soccer cliche has always suggested that cup finals are played just a little differently.

Often initially described as "cagey" but suddenly descending into "heavyweights trading punches," cup finals have a sort of aura behind them, no matter if they're being played in the local park or on the world stage.

As a player and a coach, these do-or-die moments are always special. There is something poetic about packing two pairs of game socks for a tournament weekend that only guarantees a single game. The level of mental preparation for a cup match will always be different from a normal match, so surely the execution will be different, too?

In a sense, this implies the existence of the "clutch" player – someone who behaves differently under the pressures that present themselves during games like Tuesday night's US Open Cup final between Real Salt Lake and D.C. United.

However, the concept of "clutch" has been the collective punching bag of the sports analytics community for years. But no matter how many times the sports geeks have laid a blow against the existence of "clutchness," it always seems to bounce back (in a fashion similar to what you would expect from a clutch player, fittingly enough).

To investigate, we have pulled the Opta data from the 2011 and 2012 MLS Cup and US Open Cup finals and have compared them broadly to the overarching trends of normal run-of-the-mill MLS matches.

To compare, we have picked out a few game metrics that have proven to change when a game's scoreline changes. The reasoning here being that if cup finals are played differently, we would see broad deviation on metrics that are known to change.

What does the average possession look like?

  PASSES TIME (Seconds) BALL DISTANCE (Meters)
MLS Play 2.38 8.53 68.81
Cup Finals 2.24 8.11 64.12

Where are possessions starting from?

  DEFENSIVE THIRD MIDDLE THIRD ATTACKING THIRD
MLS Play 29.7% 47.2% 23.1%
Cup Finals 27.6% 46.3% 26.1%

There are some slight differences, but given our sample size, the differences between our two sets of samples are nowhere close to statistically significant.

Does this disprove that high-stakes matches are different from normal matches? Of course not. The mental aspect of the game is impossible to ignore. But, it does remind us that cup matches are still matches – won and lost in the same subtle ways that every other game is decided.