A debate that seems to constantly arise in ranking teams is whether their rank should be based on goal differential or wins… or in the case of soccer, total points. A quick look at human rankings shows that people instinctively value wins beyond all else. This would make sense if the best team won every game. But in soccer, not only does this happen, but sometimes the best team on the day doesn’t even win! This last weekend, MLS offered us a view on what goal differential means and how the worst team sometimes wins.
Last Saturday, we saw Houston defeat FC Dallas 1-0 in Dallas, while DC United pulled off the shocker of the weekend by beating Real Salt Lake 4-1 at home. In each game, a goal was scored in the last five minutes of regulation. Alvaro Saborio scored RSL’s lone goal in the 86th minute in DC. Salt Lake has a habit of scoring late, but this time, it didn’t matter as DC United rode Dwayne Derosario’s hat trick to a convincing win over the #3 team in The Power Rank.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, FC Dallas was looking for a return to form. Within the past month, they have had trouble finding the net in both MLS and Champion’s League, resulting in them dropping from #4 to #8. They looked to turn it around against the Dynamo, but had three shots hit the woodwork and another called back for a foul against the keeper. While Dallas couldn’t get through, they at least looked to be getting one point from the match until Geoff Cameron headed home in the 87th minute.
While the late goals were nearly identical, they had totally different meanings in each game. As DC United were up 4-0, nothing was lost, while Dallas ended up with zero points. This illustrates the importance of goals beyond the winning goal: they insulate a team from bad luck. Particularly in soccer, bad luck can strike at any moment with a counter-attack, set piece, or poor challenge. Because goals are so infrequent, they are that much more valuable; in soccer no team will start feeling comfortable until they are up by at least two goals. So what this tells us is that teams which can win by bigger margins have a much lower chance of a freak event costing them points. This even applies to when a David faces Goliath, as the The Power Rank clearly shows Real Salt Lake is a better team in general than DC United, although they were not better on the day. But even in that case, as FC Dallas learned, failure to score goals when presented the chance can lead to unlikely and unexpected losses of points. And if you don’t believe me that it’s important to score extra points to protect a win, just ask the Braves and Red Sox.