Watching the Cosmos-Rowdies game over the weekend this expression kept creeping into my head. The Cosmos needed to win this game by two goals to move ahead of Ottawa Fury in the combined standings so as to guarantee themselves home field throughout the play-offs, including the Soccer Bowl. The first goal was a Raul beauty between the goalie’s legs - incidentally, this was not any indication of the goalie’s performance because he had already made a number saves during this game without which the Rowdies would have been in a huge deficit already. Then the Cosmos scored again and almost immediately I began thinking of this quote - and the RailHawks game during the Spring Season.
Remember that game? Cosmos were down 2-0 at the end of 90 minutes? Yeah, you remember it, they scored two goals during stoppage time and snuck out with a draw. Poof, RailHawks’ two goal advantage is gone. After years of hearing this quote, and then seeing it play out so memorably in Carolina I thought it deserved some research. Belatedly, let me share what I found with my fellow soccer newbs out there.
Basically it comes down to psychology. The initial question you might have at first has to be something like this – how can a two (2) goal lead be more dangerous than a one (1) goal lead? Simple question, and the answer comes down to the psychology of the team in the lead – assuming the team losing is actually trying to win of course. Now, let me be clear, there isn’t an inference of diving or throwing a game on the losing team, but they could feel beaten down by the fact they’re losing and have their own breakdown. But assuming the losing side hasn’t had a collapse of its own and is still pushing forward, the pivotal part of this soccer truism is the mental state of the team leading. And in fact you will see this play-out in the RailHawks and Rowdies games.
The comfort level of the winning team is important because it affects their play. When a team has a one goal lead they are fully aware that it can disappear in a moment, just one kick or header or bad bounce to the net. That’s all it takes, and we have all seen it, and therefore that team will endeavor not lose its focus. But if there is a two goal lead there is a tendency to get comfortable and confident in knowing it is unlikely that "we" would allow two errors for the other team to take advantage of. That is, we "know" we won’t screw up twice so that those losers will catch us.
So, this comfort level is the first part. The second part comes into play if a goal is actually scored because now that comfort level disappears. All of the worry is how will this affect mental state, it is the reaction of the team that just lost its big lead that coaches and fans are concerned with – will they fight or fold. Will they keep the lead or will they crumble and walk away with a disappointing draw, or even worse.
The winning team shifts from having confidence in their 2-0 lead to being scared it will lose its 2-1 lead – think of the concept of playing not lose or playing scared. The concern is the loss of confidence will impact the way they play going forward while the team losing gets an infusion of confidence and a nothing to lose attitude going forward. With nothing to lose, they become aggressors and the winning team is now on its heels. You can see this in the RailHawks game.
Although the Cosmos were losing, they kept pressing to the very end of the game. Once they scored the first goal, the RailHawks seemed to lose confidence. They were on their heels the rest of the way and then let in a clumsy second goal that allowed the Cosmos to walk away with a draw.
Focusing on the psychology aspect, compare with the winning team in the Rowdies game where the Cosmos had a 2-0 lead. Despite the lead, the Cosmos never relented. They didn’t have the same let down that spells trouble for teams with a 2-0 lead. I don’t think there is a science to this, but it is a challenge that mature teams need to embrace to be successful – never sit back, or underestimate an opponent.
Certainly, these games are not indicative of how the Rowdies or RailHawks play in general, each game is unique in its own way. But these two games serve as examples to illustrate the two perspectives of the 2-0 lead being the most dangerous in soccer.
Once you look into it, the expression does make sense. It may or may not actually be true, but it attempts to serve as a cautionary tale for teams and players not to get comfortable with any lead until the game is over.
Would appreciate any comments or thoughts. Thanks.