Friday, October 8

Bad News for Top Seeds in USSF-D2 Playoffs

It is not unusual for home field advantage to net a lead for lower seeds in a two-leg series, but the news coming out of the first two days of quarterfinal action in the USSF Division-2 postseason is not good news for three higher seeds who find themselves trailing by two goals on a rare start in the history of the second tier playoffs.

On Wednesday, the Montreal Impact (seeded 6) posted a 2-0 victory over visiting Austin Aztex (3) and the two Thursday matches also saw the home clubs Puerto Rico Islanders (8) and Vancouver Whitecaps (5) register identical 2-0 wins over the Rochester Rhinos (1) and Portland Timbers (4). NASL Conference winners Carolina RailHawks were the only club not to find themselves in the two-goal deficit, playing to a scoreless stalemate on the road against the NSC Minnesota Stars.

At first glance, the results seem fairly common and expected, but overall they ended up being historical. The outcomes marked the first time in league history that all of the visiting teams in an aggregate score series were shutout in the equivalent of the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Since the aggregate score format was adopted in 2000, each of the previous 10 years saw at least one traveling team find the back of the net in the first leg.

The scoreless draw between Carolina and Minnesota was only the fifth occurrence in the equivalent series over the course of 11 years and 38 matches. The most recent two results in 2005 and 2003 saw the visiting clubs win the series on penalties after a draw in the second leg. In 2002, the home club won the second game by a single goal with two series scoreless after the initial leg.

But the historic nature of shutouts means little to Rochester, Austin and Portland heading into the weekend. The more important figure is the record of 14-0-3, the series results for the clubs leading by two goals after the first leg of an aggregate score series in the playoffs, regardless of which round. While clubs leading by two goals have lost six second-leg matches out of 17 series (8-3-6 in the second game, including series overtime) all-time since 2000, only three have seen the series turn in favor of the host club of the second leg.

The Rhinos are very familiar with one of the three dramatic turnarounds having been on the devastating side of it just two years ago against current foe Puerto Rico – the only occurrence since 2001. After posting a 2-0 victory at home, the Rhinos gave up two on the road as the Islanders forced series overtime and went on to nab the winner. Rochester, however, has led by a pair on two other occasions, winning both series despite suffering a one-goal second-leg loss in 2008 in the round before facing Puerto Rico. They also trailed by two once previously in 2005 against Richmond, earning a draw in the second leg as they exited the postseason.

Vancouver is well aware of what it is like on both sides of the coin as they were involved in the only other comebacks from a two-goal deficit. The Whitecaps were part of a memorable and historic series in the first year of the aggregate format in 2000 when they faced the defending champion Minnesota Thunder in the conference semifinals. Vancouver posted a 3-0 victory in the first leg, one of only three occasions in which a club led by more than two goals in an aggregate score series in the history of the playoffs - all of them, oddly, featuring the Whitecaps [Vancouver led Miami, 4-1, in 2006 and trailed Hershey, 4-0, in 2001]. At the National Sports Center, the Thunder made an amazing comeback with a 3-0 result in regulation to trigger overtime, where the history-making goal was scored by Morgan Zeba four minutes in. A year later, Vancouver used that experience to fuel a rally of their own at home after falling 2-0 to San Diego, topping the Flash 4-1 in the second leg to reach the semifinals.

Vancouver has been involved in seven of the 17 series featuring a two-goal margin or more, winning the series in four of the five in which they led (3-0-2 second leg record) and splitting the two series in which they trailed despite winning the second game in both.

Montreal has led two series by a pair of goals all-time, winning both series with a win and a draw in the two second-leg contests. Portland has led and trailed a series once each with the second leg and series results matching that of the first leg. Austin is making its postseason debut this year and Puerto Rico’s lone prior experience with a two-goal margin was the previously mentioned series against Rochester in which they rallied for a series win.

While the RailHawks were part of the scoreless affair, historically they have trailed by two on one occasion, falling in the second leg as well. The NSC Minnesota Stars are an expansion side, but their predecessors found themselves behind by at least a couple on three occasions, winning the series once (as detailed previously) and falling twice in the series with a win and loss in the second leg.

More numbers from the 17 all-time series with two-goal margins after first leg:

- The leading teams’ eight wins in the second leg were by one goal six times. Vancouver won the second leg by two in 2006 and four in 2002.

- Overtime was only needed on two occasions. Vancouver-Minnesota in 2000 and Rochester-Puerto Rico in 2008. None were decided by penalties.

- The largest lead after the first leg is four goals. The Hershey Wildcats (coached by current Rhinos coach Bob Lilley) led Vancouver, 4-0, and won the 2001 semifinal series despite falling in Vancouver, 1-0.

- The six teams to win the second leg after trailing were Charleston (2008), Puerto Rico (2008), Minnesota (2008, 2000), Vancouver (2001 twice).

- The only year in which no team registered at least a two-goal lead in a series was 2003.

- There has never been a scoreless draw in the second leg of the series.

- At least two goals were scored in 11 of the 17 second leg matches. (breakdown - 1 six times, 2 three times, 3 twice, 4 twice, 5 twice, 7 once, 8 once)

- The home team has scored in 13 of the 17 second leg games. The visiting team has scored in 12.

- The second leg goal total, including series overtime, surpassed the first game’s tally on eight occasions.

- 67 two-leg, aggregate score series have been played since 2000, including this year.

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