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This Ain’t No Luck of the Draw

While the fact that Real Salt Lake largely drew their way to an MLS Cup victory via penalties in 2009 is frequently cited as evidence of the strong role luck plays in the playoffs, it can’t distract from or diminish the fact that both teams suiting up on Saturday absolutely earned their right to do so.

Unless you’re a camera predating the 1950s, chances are you don’t see the world in black and white.

It is for this reason that I can’t help but cringe a bit when I see statements issued along the lines of “the playoffs are nothing more than a crapshoot.” While such sentiments have mostly died down around Seattle during the incredible playoff run the Sounders suddenly find themselves in (care to divulge the fact that there’s a 45% chance it’ll end in divorce during your wedding toast, anyone?), you don’t need to frequent too many comments sections around the league to see this notion sprout up on a semi-regular basis.

I concede that part of my over-the-top reaction stems largely from being a stickler for semantics. Simply changing the word “luck” to “hard to predict” and you won’t find me in much disagreement. This is a parity-based league, after all. It’s also doubtful anyone in their right mind would argue that skill, game plans, and momentum play little to no factor in match outcomes once the trees turn gold and red and their leaves begin to fall.

That being said, I still see some detriment in the belief that playoffs are even moderately or substantially determined by luck. Not in a people’s-lives-are-at-stake type of way, but more in a don’t-spoil-your-friend’s-wedding-because-you’re-still-single type of way. We’re all human, and I’m sure in local context Seattle’s previous woes in the playoffs did no favors to warming up to the idea that true love isn’t random. Band-Aids and hydrogen peroxide are both helpful in treating wounds, but one comes with far less sting.

While Real Salt Lake’s 2009 run provides some coal to those content to hop on board the luck train, the LA Galaxy’s stretch of dominance from 2011-2014 must surely be viewed as a logical, if not far more convincing, counterpoint. The term “coin flip” is a popular one to throw around when talking about the randomness of MLS playoffs. So what are the chances that the Galaxy win MLS Cup three times in four years if it really were a 50/50 chance of advancing (winning at least nine out of the ten series they featured in)? 1.07 percent. And note that not a single one of those nine featured penalties.

Is it possible the Galaxy were just really, really lucky? Sure, I suppose it’s possible. But the fact that they led the league in regular season points, Supporters’ Shields, and goal differential over the course of those four years makes this dwindling argument even more spindly.

However, the world isn’t black and white. Just because the Galaxy didn’t win thrice in four years due to luck doesn’t mean it didn’t play a part.

At the end of the day, it comes down to what degree you think luck plays. Unfortunately, barring divine intervention we’ll never really know how much is good fortune versus preparation and skill.

I tend to take a harder line when talking about luck. For me, it comes down to whether or not there was much you could have done to change the outcome. Using this definition, things that would qualify as good or bad luck would primarily be referee decisions, injuries and illnesses (we’re ignoring sports science/training/diet for the sake of argument), and favorable matchups with specific opposing players or team playing styles.

Things like striking a goalpost instead of the back of the net, outshooting your opponent but failing to seize your opportunities, or out-possessing the opponent but getting caught on a quick counter thus cannot be viewed as bad luck. Heck, even penalty kicks—which bears the closest resemblance to luck in soccer—have been found to not come down to luck, at least not fully (examples: tracking anticipatory movements of goalkeepers increases success; attackers nearly 10% more likely to convert than defenders).

With a more expansive interpretation of luck one could attempt to use statistics to show that a side was more lucky or unlucky, whether this be through more traditional metrics like key passes, shots, and shots on goal or through more advanced iterations like expected goals. But given the issue both face when dealing with small sample sizes—they’re good at predicting longer term trends but less so with 1- or 2-match series—we should remain highly cautious reading too much into them in this context.

You may be sitting here thinking ok, ok—perhaps boiling playoff success down to luck is a bit overblown, but so what?

While no one’s life may be at stake, it doesn’t take a renowned psychologist to understand that you’re much less likely to get excited about or gratified by a reward that you didn’t earn. Given that professional sports on the whole are primarily about fan engagement and enjoyment, this is nothing to scoff at. So even if this column makes a single reader just 5% more appreciative of where we stand today, I’ll consider it worth it.

On that note, what about the teams at hand?

We can say with certainty that lady luck played a small factor in both reaching this point, or at minimum some 50/50 calls.

For Seattle, this largely consisted of two potential offside calls in the match against Sporting Kansas City. Both appeared to be slightly offside (Matt Besler’s set piece header and Nelson Valdez’s open play header), but one featured a clear view for the linesman while the other did not. One goal was taken away, the other was allowed to stand.

For Toronto, it largely consisted of a questionable non-call on Jozy Altidore in Montreal’s penalty area that immediately led to Toronto’s second goal away, which subsequently allowed for the type of turnaround we saw once they returned home to the comfort of Canada’s largest city.

Would these two teams be standing here today had neither of those calls gone the way they did?

We could play ifs, ands, or buts all day. But you know what? You can only worry about what’s in your control.

While taking the SAT IIs in high school, I was asked to write about a semi-obscure subject I had coincidentally been researching for a class the week prior. I flew through the section and got a really high score. This undoubtedly boosted my college prospects. Does this fortuitous event overshadow the things that were in my control, like grades, sports participation, or volunteering? No, it does not.

And everything that has been in both teams’ hands has pointed to this Saturday matchup being deserved on both ends.

Toronto has scored at least twice in every game this postseason and has averaged an astonishing 3.4 goals per game. Seattle knocked out the West’s top two teams without relying on penalties, including an offensive explosion in the opening 3-0 route over Dallas and notching the sole away victory any MLS team has claimed in Colorado all year.

These are not teams that got lucky. These are teams that are peaking at the right time of the year that, coincidentally, happened to have a call go in their favor at one point along the way.

If Seattle is ultimately crowned the victor, there will undoubtedly be some seeking to etch a metaphorical asterisk into our trophy (in fact, Peter Vermes is apparently unwilling to wait that long). They will be wrong.

No one likes us, we don’t care.

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