MLS 101: How the "away-goals rule" works in the MLS Cup Playoffs

This year, Major League Soccer decided to implement what's commonly known as the "away-goals rule" during the MLS Cup Playoffs, presented by AT&T.

You might have seen it mentioned here or there. But maybe you aren't quite sure what it is. Well, here's everything you need to know.

WHAT IS IT?

The away-goals rule is a tiebreaking method that is used to determine the winner of a two-legged series, such as the MLS Conference Semifinals and Conference Championships.

It has been used in the CONCACAF Champions League for many years and also in most European and South American cup-style tournaments (e.g., UEFA Champions League, Copa Libertadores).

This is the first year it's being used in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Table 1: Aggregate scoring

  Leg 1 Leg 2
Team A 2 1
Team B 0 2

HOW IS IT APPLIED?

In a two-legged series, an aggregate scoring system is used. The winner of the series is, therefore, determined by the combined score of both matches.

In the example shown in Table 1, Team A wins 3-2 on aggregate.

Table 2: Away-goals rule

  Leg 1 Leg 2
Team A 2 2
Team B 1 3

But when two teams are tied on aggregate at the end of regulation time of the second leg, such as in the case in Table 2, that's when the away-goals rule is applied as the first tiebreaker. The winner is the team with the most goals scored away from home.

In the example shown, let's assume that Leg 1 is hosted by Team A and Leg 2 is hosted by Team B. At the end of the second leg, the aggregate score is 4-4. But Team A has scored two goals away from home, while Team B has only one goal away from home. Therefore, Team A wins due to the away-goals rule.

Table 3: All tied up

  Leg 1 Leg 2
Team A 2 1
Team B 1 2

WHAT HAPPENS IF THE AWAY GOALS TOTALS ARE EQUAL?

This scenario happens more often than you might think. In Table 3, as you can see, both teams won at home, 2-1, a rather common occurance. The aggregate score of the series is 3-3, and the away-goals total is level at one.

In this scenario, two 15-minute extratime periods will be played at the end of the 2nd leg.

NOTE: The away-goals rule does not apply in extratime. In other words, if both teams score during extratime, the away team does not win because it now has more away goals. 

If the score is tied at the end of extratime, the teams will decide it from the penalty spot.

WHY USE THE AWAY-GOALS RULE?

In theory, the away-goals rule is designed to benefit us, the fans. It is meant to encourage more attacking from visiting teams. This is particularly true of the first leg, when the away team has often bunkered in to try to keep the score even, with the hope of then winning the series in the second leg, at home. 

In the second leg, it can sometimes provide some extra drama, for example, when the teams are level on aggregate but not level on away goals. This forces the losing team to keep attacking in an effort to overcome the away-goals deficit.