Fans' View

Fans View: Go for the win every time

Photo: Mike Long

How many times have we seen it in soccer? One club comes out attacking and looks to be the better team on the day…until they score.  Then they sit back and hope to hold their lead, suffering a relentless and painful onslaught from the opposition. More times than not, the first team succumbs, ending up with a loss or draw at best.

When looking at the MLS season on the whole, is it better to take the risk and go after wins, or does “getting a result” with ties get you to the playoffs?

It ain’t pretty but it works

From a fan’s perspective, the choice is obvious: We would rather see attacking, creative, football than watch our team bunker down with the aim of keeping anything remotely exciting from happening.

Managers, on the other hand, sometimes seem to hold draws in equal regard to wins, especially with the current MLS dogma that road draws are gold. It doesn’t take much looking at lineups and substitutions to see that the game plan sometimes starts, and often ends, with a draw as the intended outcome.

For evidence, look no further than John Hackworth’s post-game comments from the recent draw against Toronto: “To get one back and get a result here on a day like today is good for us.” If you remember, that game was an embarrassment, and the result should have been treated like a loss in the dressing room.

What makes the draw so appealing?

For those newer to football, this may seem like a pointless question.

Don’t teams always try to win? Well, no.

The problem in football is that scoring a goal is a rather difficult task that requires taking some tactical risks.  Namely, players must be committed to more forward positions in order to obtain more scoring chances, thereby leaving the team vulnerable defensively.  A conscious tactical decision must be made by the manager: Do we play risky or conservative?

Don’t be scared of the math

The answer comes down to math and some basic Probability and Statistics. (For those of you that continued reading past that last phrase, thank you, and don’t worry. I won’t use any Chi-squared tests or linear regression analyses.)

We need to estimate the success rate of earning a win when that is the strategy. This obviously is a difficult task. There are no data out there to show what a team’s tactical plan was going into a game. We can only guess.

So, for sake of argument, let’s estimate that:

  1. when going for a win you only succeed a third of the time;
  2. when playing for a draw, you succeed half the time.

If true, a 34-game season would produce about 11 wins (33 points) when seeking a win, compared to about 17 draws (17 points) when seeking a draw.

Of course, this is simplified. It ignores that some draw-seeking games might end up an accidental win (probably quite rare) and some win-seeking games may end up a draw. Let’s assume the accidental points cancel each other out.

Am I too optimistic about attacking strategies?

Well, try stacking the odds more for the draw-seeking strategy. If win-seeking only succeeds one out of every four times (25%) and draw-seeking succeeds two-thirds of the time, what happens? Draw-seeking gets you 22 draws and 22 points. Win-seeking still gets you 9 wins and 27 points.

Going for broke pays off

Despite the potential flaws in the statistical analysis, it’s hard to argue that going for draws benefits a team over the course of the season. Yet we continue to hear how “valuable” these single points are. A review of past MLS seasons reveals the number of draws a team earned had no obvious bearing on their final position in the standings. Further, a higher Goals-For tally is a stronger predictor of success than a lower Goals-Against total, again showing the rewards of taking more risk.

Too often, we see that fear-based tactical approach in many of our beloved Union games, particularly those on the road. We’ve heard Hackworth talk about “knowing that they were going to come after us” and trying to absorb the opposition attack. It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe he would be happy settling for a single point in those games. Disappointingly, we’ve yet to see the possession-with-purpose attacking style we were led to believe we’d see by now.

Not only is attacking football more enjoyable to watch, but the risk-benefit analysis favors going for wins.

Sure, there are more ways to “go for a win” than just pushing numbers forwards. For decades, the entire Italian national calcio system was based on catenaccio, or counter-attacking play, that panned out pretty well for them in international competition but left plenty to be desired by fans.

However, we are seeing more and more in modern football that the best defense is a healthy offense.

As a fan, I would prefer to see our Union field one or two more attacking minded players. We should go out as the aggressor seeking three points, even if it means ending up with a loss half the time, rather than sitting back without creating chances and earning a string of draws.

I won’t pretend to know the precise tactical nuances that will guarantee more wins, but I’m certain that, regardless of the strategy, the aspiration should always be to take the extra risk and go for the win. Not only can that style get us to the playoffs, but it would definitely earn my season ticket.


  1. Win? WIN!?!?!?!?!
    That’s not Philly tough! THATS NOT PHILLY TOUGH AT ALL!

    Philly Tough is to hunker down and hope for the best. Philly Tough is to drive that bus straight onto the field cling onto a tie with both hands and NEVER LET GO!
    Philly Tough is go for the win only if a freak lighning storm kills 6 or 7 field players and only then you must do it by hoofing the ball forward Jac Mac will get to one eventually…
    Take all of this win talk back to Commiestan buddy we play Philly Tough here.

  2. By playing for the win over the tie, you also open yourself to greater risk for a loss. A loss not only means no points for your club, but also 3 points for another team in the table. I agree that I would rather watch attacking soccer, but the reality for MLS teams is the league is setup so that the primary objective for teams is finishing in the top five of the division standings so you make they playoffs. The way to do this is not earn as many points as possible, but rather to just finish with more points than 4-5 other teams in your division. The point is that keeping other teams from earning points can be just as important to clubs as earning points for themselves.

    • Yea, but still at some point for the good of the team, the good of the fanbase for the general health of the league you have to go for it. out side of the Pacific Northwest I don’t consider anyone’s stadium a fortress. the team needs to believe in themselves, to go for it Goddammit have some “SWAG” as the kids say.
      We aren’t going to win the championship and getting into the playoffs is a coinflip at this point.
      I say go for it and at least present a team to get excited about as opposed to onethat plays afraid.

      • I completely agree…I often find that my reasoning and the manager’s reasoning aren’t the same. Managers of average teams at edge of the playoffs (like the Union) want to make the playoffs above all else because it all but ensures their job security for the following year, which is their primary objective.

    • RJ- that’s exactly the way I used to think about it, and that is certainly the current strategy of most teams. Yet, the math doesn’t really lie. The true question is “what percentage of the time can you get a win when you go for it?” If that is 25% or better, those three points make up for all the extra losses. In addition, you might accidentally end up with a single point.

      • Chelis always went for the win during his very brief time @ Chivas. I’m to lazy to look it up but you could corelate his style to his point and help poinpoint he percentages better. Of course you have to factor in the point that he had almozt zero MLS talent….

  3. So if you score first and then sit back, aren’t you trying to win the game? I think your main point was playing offensively vs. playing defensively. And there’s a lot that goes into how aggressive you play, isn’t there?
    I’d say to be a good offensive team, you need to be composed on the ball, have good team vision, and be able to take your chances well, and be strong at the back to neutralize the counter-attack. The Union have little of the first 2, and quite a bit of the last 2.
    Based on the opponent, I think it makes sense for the Union to sit back in some games, simply because they’ll get caught out too easily by the better teams in the league. I see the Union do this too often, however, especially when the space is there in the 2nd half. Our 2nd half subs and tactical shifts leave something to be desired, but at least we’re a decent team that’s in most games.

    • If you score first and sit back, you invite the other team to attack you. You give away possession and increase the chances the other team will score. I guess it’s trying to hang on to a 1-nil for the win, but the end result increasingly heads towards giving up corners and a possible equalizer.

      ” I think it makes sense for the Union to sit back in some games, simply because they’ll get caught out too easily by the better teams in the league.”
      I’m going to disagree on this basis. Goal differential doesn’t mean squat in this league. The Union get smoked by teams with quality, sitting back just means holding onto a 3-1 loss, not a 4-1 one. Might as well go for it. They will sit back tomorrow, and RBNY will eat their lunch, steal their bike and make out with their girlfriends.

  4. You don’t dance with the champ- you have to knock him out!


    If you are playing a better team, you should go for the win each time. In any sport.

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