Central Winger: Not happy about the away-goals rule? "Fair" has nothing to do with it

Half-awake, and just before leaving the office at the conclusion of the scoreless draw between the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas in the second leg of their Western Conference semifinal series of the MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T, I tweeted this:

A few of you ripped into it as I silently examined the ramifications of the Sounders going through on the newly instituted away-goals tiebreaker on my cab ride home. My feelings are nuanced, and this is how I reached them.

The arguments against away goals seem to fall into two camps: The first being that it’s an unfair way to determine a winner, the second is that it’s a byproduct of the American Soccer Inferiority Complex™.

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I’ll only explicitly address the first point, but I do believe they are implicitly linked.

I wholeheartedly agree that the away-goals rule is not the fairest method of identifying a superior team. But neither are repeated kicks from the penalty mark. And, in a similar vein, 90-minute games themselves very often don’t send the better team through to the next round. Sports are not fair. And the madness caused by this inefficiency is, perhaps, a large part of what we’re all addicted to.

Is the away-goals rule inferior to other possible methods of tie-breaking? It depends on what we’re optimizing for. On the spectrum of “coin-flip” to “algorithmic,” the away-goals rule sits proudly in the middle. But what is that spectrum?

Hint: it’s not “fairness.”

There seems to be a misunderstanding about what “fair” actually means. A coin-flip is fair –  that’s the point of a coin flip. In searching for the ideal tiebreaker, seeking fairness is the wrong avenue of attack. You can find perfectly legitimate mechanisms for fairness in your front pocket.

This scale is actually measured in units of “randomness,” ranging from “completely unpredictable” to “entirely predictable.” This nuance reframes the entire away-goals rule debate into a much more interesting discussion about how much randomness belongs in our game. Less than a coin-flip, right?

My personal opinion is that the tie-breaking procedure should incorporate as much randomness as a natural 90-minute game. Estimating randomness is not an easy task, but my intuition suggests that while the away-goals rule is crude, it reaches its decision purely on the random events that happen during a natural match.

It is, in other words, a soccer solution to a soccer problem. And that –  when you really think about it –  is pretty fair.