The imperfect beauty of the two-legged playoff

Perhaps there was a singular moment when I fell in love with the two-legged playoff, but I can’t remember it. Instead, I see the affair as more like that first friendship that evolved into romance, where the slow warmth of familiarity acquiesced into something more serious. But whereas most people look back on those liaisons as a mixture of immaturity and boredom, I still feel the same way about the home-and-home, two-legged, knockout round “tie.” I’m still faintly in love.

Perhaps that comes from contrarianism – the idea that the way UEFA Champions League resolves its Round of 16, quarterfinals, and semifinals is so different than mainstream U.S. sports – but there is an undeniable brilliance to the symmetry. Two 90-minute games, one hosted by each team, giving each set of fans its chance to sway momentum. Split across two weeks, if not occasionally more, we avoid the harsh tension of one day that settles it all. That pause at the mid-point to regroup panders to parts of us that can’t resist a good arc.

The flaws are easy to pick out. Low-scoring games probably need more than 180 minutes to offset the randomness, but compared to other formats, Champions League makes it easy to settle into a slow, quiet appreciation. It’s the middle ground between one-offs and boredom, the offset to the impersonal justice of neutral grounds. While managers have been able to leverage bugs, like the advantages of a home second leg or the power of the away goals tiebreakers, dwelling on those risks understating other formats’ faults, or begrudging beauty because of a quirky freckle.

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When Champions League returns to the format each February, it feels like an anniversary. True, the tournament has been in season since fall, and we had two-legged playoffs in the competition’s early rounds, but a six-match group stage spread over four months feels like ballast – necessary, but also there to be tossed overboard. Come winter, when teams begin those small, symmetrical home-and-homes, Champions League takes on its true life. Though there’s much to celebrate in the coming of matchups like Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, or (next week) Manchester City and Barcelona, there’s also room to appreciate one of the most fulfilling formats in major sports.

Perhaps the most celebrated playoff in U.S. sports culture is the NCAA basketball tournament’s – a single elimination tournament that asks teams to win six or seven games to survive “March Madness.” But like the National Football League’s playoffs or collegiate football’s new system, the format also asks teams to accept the variability of the one-and-done – the reality that one unrepresentative day can leave you on the wrong side of history. Baseball, basketball, and hockey avoid this problem by having teams play best-of-seven series, which introduces the unfortunate problem of making playoffs into drawn out buzzkills. It takes a strong sense of denial to see two teams play each other seven times in a row and not wonder if there’s a better way. Thankfully, because the format is so entrenched in U.S. sports culture, we rarely challenge the notion.

We do, however, occasionally discuss the math behind it, and in that regard, a seven-game format certainly seems more just. But let’s not conflate the idea of playoffs with justice. There’s no way playoffs in baseball and basketball could tell us more than the sports’ 162- and 82-game seasons. Implicit in almost any playoff at the top level is a compromise. We’re willing to sacrifice some statistical certainty for entertainment. We want teams to have a chance at a just result, but we also want some drama.

In that light, wouldn’t the NBA playoffs would be more exciting (and potentially draw better television ratings) with two games instead of four, five, six or seven? Perhaps hockey, too. The nature of baseball makes it difficult to imagine, and nobody wants to subject football players to more abuse than is needed, but if the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs had two high-tension games in last year’s NBA finals, might we remember it for some drama rather than the fait accompli it became after game three or four?

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Maybe not. Maybe there’s something about soccer that’s led to this, just as the nature of baseball and professional basketball have pushed us toward longer, more prolonged deciders. Maybe, despite its low scoring nature, soccer can reach a decent resolution in 180 minutes. Perhaps the comparison between two-legged playoffs and other formats will always favor soccer, from a soccer fan’s point of view. Just as the sport might lend itself to the home-and-home, the same preferences that drive us toward soccer may skew away from drawn out “buzzkills.”

So what if other sports haven’t gotten on board? Maybe that’s part of what makes Champions League special. We focus on the matchups, and the sure talent is a spectacle of its own, but in the mere manner of its method, there’s something to love.

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