By Michael Lewis
When you’re in a knockout competition and have a short group stage, every second counts in every game.
Especially the opener.
A win can set up a team to advance to the knockout round.
A draw could put a squad in a decent position.
And a loss could very well doom a side’s chances of surviving because it probably would have to win its next two matches to move on. It’s possible, but not guaranteed.
That goes for whether it’s the men’s World Cup or MLS Is Back Tournament.
Playing beautiful soccer isn’t the issue. It is finding a way to survive so you can play another day or days. Accruing points is the first and last priorities for a team (double that in the Orlando, Fla. competition because those results will count in the standings, if and when the MLS resumes later this year).
“Basically, if you don’t get a result there, you’re probably done,” said former U.S. international Aly Wagner, who was a FOX commentator at the 2018 World Cup, told me two years ago. “So those two teams have to push for three. Everyone wants those first three points.”
So, just how important is winning your first match? If you plan on advancing to the second round it is virtually a must.
“Its massive, its massive,” Wagner said in 2018. “I think especially in the men’s game it’s even more important because they do have limited time together. Getting that head start, if you will, allows the players to relax and sit in and then to express themselves in the second and third match. And that’s everything. In this tournament, players play their best when they’re on alert but they’re relaxed and their brave and their confident. And that gives you confidence more than those three points.”
So, where do I base my argument on? The World Cup.
Since group play was instituted for the first round in 1950, countries that win their first match have moved onto the next round 82.8 percent of the time (116-24). In election terms, that’s a landslide.
And in case if you were wondering if older and ancient World Cups might have swayed the numbers, it must be noted that at Russia 2018, teams that reached the Round of 16 registered a 10-1-5 mark in their opening matches. The lone loss was by Colombia, which dropped a 2-1 decision to Japan in its first game.
Of course, nothing is absolute and there certainly have been exceptions through the decades at the World Cup.
The fortunate 27 nations that lost their opening game, but reached the second round and beyond were Yugoslavia (1962), England (1962), Hungary (1966), North Korea (1966), Argentina (1974), West Germany (1982), which reached the championship game before falling to Italy, 3-1, Argentina (1982), France (1982), Soviet Union (1982), Belgium (1986), which finished fourth, Spain (1986), England (1986), Argentina (1990), which lost in the championship game to Germany, 1-0, Yugoslavia (1990), Bulgaria (1994), which finished fourth, Mexico (1994), Italy (1994), which lost in the championship game to Brazil via penalty kicks, Saudi Arabia (1994) and Turkey (2002), which finished third, Ukraine (2006), South Korea (2006), Spain (2010), Slovenia (2010), Algeria (2014), Greece (2014), Uruguay (2014) and Colombia (2018).
Spain is the only team to lose its first match and win the World Cup, dropping a 1-0 decision to Switzerland in 2010.
And incidentally, 13 of those 26 countries advanced thanks to a wildcard berths at the 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1994 Cups.
It will be intriguing to see if things follow precedent domestically as it has internationally in the second batch of group-stage matches.