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Is it better to park the bus or be comeback kings?

Is it better to be a team that can take a lead and not worry about giving up goals, or to be a team that is able to fight back from early problems? My money’s on the latter.

orange ball podium
orange ball podium
Steve Aibel/ LittleOrcaSports.com

It is generally accepted that in soccer it is beneficial to score first and not have to play catch-up. When a team does score first, it forces their opponent to play chase the game, take more risks. and make themselves vulnerable to counter attacks. It also allows to leader to “park the bus” and just try grinding out a win instead of going for more goals. Parking the bus can often be effective, but it doesn’t guarantee victory. Just ask Paris Saint-Germaine.

In the USL, scoring the first goal of the game gives a team a huge advantage. In 2016, the average USL team gained 2.21 points per game when they netted the first goal of the game. If a team gave up a goal first, this plummets to 0.56 points gained per game. In short, teams tended to do well in games where they scored first and struggled in games in which they conceded first.

Some teams manage to defy expectations in shocking ways, however. Portland Timbers 2, who finished ninth in the Western Conference, had the second-best record in the league when scoring first: 2.67 points per game.

Colorado Springs Switchbacks were at the complete other end of the spectrum last season, failing to gain a single point in any game in which they conceded the first goal.

This information raises an important question. Is it better to be a team that can take a lead and not worry about giving up goals, or to be a team that is able to fight back from early problems?

If we look at playoff appearances, it would appear that a team’s resilience in important to making it to the postseason.

The aforementioned Switchbacks were the only team that made the 2016 playoffs that struggled at fighting back after conceding a goal. If all eight best Western Conference teams at fighting back after conceding a goal would have made the playoffs, it would have been Sounders 2 in the final spot instead of the Switchbacks.

Interestingly, S2 was the only team to notch an above-average performance when allowing the first goal that failed to make the playoffs.

To further this argument, each of the six teams who averaged at least 1.00 points per game when surrendering the first goal hosted at least one playoff match in 2016.

While scoring first did increase a team’s chance of making the playoffs, it didn’t increase the chances that much.

In the Western Conference, three teams that made the playoffs (Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Orange County) failed to rank in the top eight. Portland Timbers 2, Saint Louis FC, and San Antonio FC were all harder to take points from if they scored first. They all also missed the playoffs.

As could be expected, these teams who were able to defend a lead but failed to make the playoffs were all weak on the offensive end. With the exception of Saint Louis — who scored 12 of their 42 goals against Tulsa Roughnecks — none of these teams were able to crack 40 goals.

Even if you want to discount games where a team won in a shutout or a 0-0 draw occurred, there were 239 USL games in which both teams scored in 2016. Even in these games, scoring first is helpful for a team. The points gained by the first team to score drops to 1.54, still a good enough pace to make the playoffs in either conference. The points gained by a team scored on first increases to 0.97, almost good for a draw.

Why does this happen, though? To a certain extent, it is that the better team tends to score first.

Every team that scored the first goal more often than they conceded first ended up in the playoffs last year. Skill is absolutely a factor in why teams that score first have such a high level of success, but intangibles need to be considered as well. Things such as team morale, coaching skill, and the presence of fans can all help a team that is down early find that extra push to get a goal back and push on for a draw or win.

We have all seen teams that mentally fold when they go down. The best teams in the league are those who are able to bounce back from those setbacks. So remember for the 2017 season, the first goal is the best way to increase your odds of points, but the best teams are those who you can never count out.