It is time, Atlanta, to learn the ways of a very different postseason.
Any playoff is an adventure, especially to those who follow the oft-bleak fortunes of the local franchises. But this one has a particularly foreign feel. Some would even call it a little bit exotic.
Welcome to the foie gras of playoffs.
Goal aggregate? Who decides anything important by goal aggregate? What language is that?
But first, Atlanta United – a professional soccer new to town – must get by a one-game knockout round game against Columbus on Thursday. Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to watch – a knockout round? Does the winner get a championship belt? And then the loser goes to concussion protocol?
Anyway, if Atlanta United, blessed with the best home-field advantage in MLS, gets past a team over which it already owns two multi-goal victories, then things get a little quirkier.
And if it doesn’t, Atlanta will understand. We’ve been there before.
This soccer postseason is unexplored territory hereabouts. Our guides are two players who came to Atlanta United with lots of MLS postseason experience – Jeff Larentowicz (22 MLS Cup games, plus a championship in 2010 with the Colorado Rapids) and Michael Parkhurst (20 playoff games).
They both will testify to the similarity between these playoffs and those others which Atlanta teams visit and then mostly fade away: Everything gets tighter and tenser at playoff time. It is lemon-sucking pucker time.
“Like any other sport, the intensity goes up another level,” Parkhurst said. “There were games this season when we were scoring three or four games a half, scoring six to seven goals a game. That’s not going to happen in the playoffs.
“There are going to be periods of time when you’re going to have to bunker down and survive. There are fewer mistakes. There is more focus and less chances (to score) so you have to be ready to take those chances. You know that you need a little bit of luck but the victory is most important.”
Added Larentowicz: “You can feel the intensity. The games have that extra level of concentration. The margins are smaller.”
As the winners of the knockout round advance, they will collide with a distinctly soccer-style format. For in the quarterfinals and semis, teams play two games – one home, one away – with the winner decided not strictly by victories but by total goals. There are those aggregate goals.
If after both games the teams have scored the same number of goals, the first tiebreaker is road-game goals. Still a tie? The teams play two 15-minute extra periods. Then, if needed, it gets down to penalty kicks. At least, I think that’s how it goes. Here’s hoping we find out firsthand.
That is not a format the traditional American sports audience can readily digest. Aggregate goals? Why not just play a best two-of-three, winners advance? We get that.
Explains Larentowicz, “It’s a worldwide soccer tradition to place value on scoring, and scoring away from home.
“It forces teams to come out and try to score goals, to try to play an open game. It rewards the teams that do.” (And shouldn’t that favor a team like Atlanta United, second in the MLS in goals scored?)
And should this local expansion team make it to the MLS Cup – hosted by the highest-seeded team – then it’s a perfectly normal one-game, winner-take-the-trophy-and-the-confetti-shower deal. You know, like the Super Bowl. Only, no one is going to have a 28-3 lead to fritter.