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Orlando, Santos, Houston and the Most Bizarrely Consequential Match of the Leagues Cup's Group Stage
We will be getting weird in Central Florida!
Saturday, July 29th will present to us – and I know this is a big statement considering we’re discussing the tournament that has given us a 19-round penalty shootout, an Alan Pulido headbutt, and in a prior iteration of the tournament a cat escaping onto the field and halting play – one of the most ridiculous situations in the vaunted history of the Leagues Cup. At 7:30pm Eastern time in Central Florida, Club Santos Laguna and Orlando City SC will play to determine the outcome of the South 2 region. Here’s where the group stands going into the match:
I will start with some information that might confuse those who haven’t given themselves over to the Leagues Cup the way that I have.1 Draws, in the Leagues Cup, end in penalty shootouts. The winner of the penalty shootout, in what I interpret as an homage to MLS in the late 1990s, gets two points, and the loser gets one. So far in the South 2 group, Orlando drew Houston in regular time, 1-1 and then won the shootout, and Houston drew Santos in regular time, 2-2, and then won the shootout.
The tiebreakers in the Leagues Cup, which I had to find from the official document of regulations published by MLS PR, privilege head-to-head victories (including on penalties) first, followed by goal differential, most goals scored, fewest goals conceded, The Clubs Fair Play Table, and finally an unspecified drawing from Leagues Cup HQ, which I imagine involves a blindfolded Don Garber throwing a dart at a board.
If Orlando/Santos ends in regulation, it will have fairly normal repercussions: An Orlando win has Orlando winning the group with 5, Houston in second with 3, and Santos Laguna in third with 1. A Santos win will leave them in first with 4, Houston in second with 3, and Orlando in third with 2. That’s fairly straight-forward, and actually avoids the pesky tiebreakers. There is a world in which Big Dunc comes out and scores four in front of the home fans, or alternatively Harold Preciado comes out and scores four in front of the away fans, and and this is fairly uneventful.
But if this match goes to penalties, everything goes all cattywampus, with a huge caveat included that I’ll have to get to later. An Orlando win in penalties will have the same effect as an Orlando win in regular time. A Santos win in penalties would leave all three teams on three points, with a head-to-head tiebreaker ouroboros (Houston has beaten Santos, Santos would have beaten Orlando, Orlando has beaten Houston) and everyone would have an identical goal differential of zero, as all matches ended in draws. This triggers the fourth tiebreaker, which is goals scored, and in this case, the fifth tiebreaker (number of goals conceded) would provide no new information.
A nil-nil draw with a Santos Laguna win in penalties would end us with all teams on three points, Houston at the top with 3 GF, Santos in second with 2 GF, and Orlando in third with one.
A one-one draw with a Santos Laguna win in penalties would end us with all teams on three points and the top spot decided by Clubs Fair Play Table. The Clubs Fair Play Table is described in the following JPEG:
It looks like the Clubs Fair Play Table available on the official website of the Competition is not fully up to date, as it doesn’t have the Dynamo/Santos match’s discipline included, but Santos has two yellows to Houston’s zero over two matches (That’s the well-disciplined Ben Olsen soccer we’ve come to expect of the men in orange this year!), so the Dynamo — again in the case of a 1-1 draw in which Santos wins the shootout — will finish atop the group, followed, I believe, by Santos due to them finishing with more total goals scored.
If the match finishes in a draw at 2-2, then Santos would take the Goals Scored tiebreaker, dropping Houston to second, who would still finish above Orlando on discipline.
If it finishes at 3-3, or any shared number higher than that, and Santos wins the shootout, we’d see both Orlando and Santos advance with more total goals scored than Houston, with Santos at the top and Orlando in second. I believe that this is the only outcome in which the Dynamo don’t advance out of the group.
This is all assuming that the head-to-head tiebreaker doesn’t apply retroactively as in, Orlando can’t draw Houston on GF but still hop them due to their head-to-head win. It seems like, if I’m reading the rules right, head-to-head only matters when it comes to points, not anything else. It is possible that I am wrong.
Now, for that extra caveat I mentioned seven paragraphs up: This is the one group in which it probably suits a team, especially an MLS team, best, to finish second. Because of the fact that there are, for the moment, only 47 combined teams between MLS and Liga MX, this iteration of the Leagues Cup featured only 15 groups of three teams, the most recent championship winners of both leagues (LAFC and Pachuca) receiving free passes to the knockout rounds. The team that finishes second in the group will play (and in the case of Houston and Orlando, host) Pachuca. It’s not a great reward to play against the 2023 Clausura champions, but winning the group means you will face off against the winner of the South 3 group, which has already been decided in favor of the carnation-clad Herons of the Club de Football Internacional de Miami, who you may have heard recently signed a new guy who seems to be very good. I don’t know how the hosting duties between the winner of South 2 and South 3 are intended to be shaken out by rule, but I figure, for a host of reasons2 that DRV PNK Stadium will host the Round of 32 match. For Houston and Orlando, you’ll want to finish second for the guaranteed homefield and the avoidance of Miami and Robert Taylor’s Advanced Form,3 and I think it’s even in Santos’ best advantage to play Pachuca on a neutral site rather than going to Fort Lauderdale in early August to play against this iteration of Inter Miami.
The ideal outcomes, separated by fanbase, are these:
Santos Laguna can only finish in second with a 0-0 or 1-1 draw and a penalty shootout win. With a win in regular time or a 2-2 or greater draw and penalty shootout win, they will win the group, and any sort of loss will send them home.
Houston Dynamo can finish in second with either team winning in regular time, an Orlando City penalty shootout win, or a Santos penalty shootout win following a 2-2 draw.
Orlando City can only finish second by losing the penalty shootout to Santos following a draw with three or more goals scored by both teams.
The last outcome listed is the most entertaining outcome possible, because we’d enter a 2021 Raiders/Chargers situation in which a rare mutually beneficial outcome presents itself — Santos winning the shootout would have Orlando hosting in the Round of 32 and Santos not eliminated. It would be better, if that situation presents itself, for Orlando to outright throw the shootout and guarantee homefield and no Messi in the Round of 32. In fact, if they score at least three goals in the match, it’d really still be in their best interest to give up as many goals as necessary to end the match in a draw and then throw the shootout.
The other intrigue here is, of course, the fact that the Dynamo will be helpless to affect any outcome here. Can you imagine being a Houston Dynamo fan4 if we get that 3-3 scoreline at any point? It’s happened before in Leagues Cup, there have been many goals scored from all manner of clubs in this contest. If we get dueling hat-tricks from Big Dunc and Harold Preciado and you’re stuck in Houston sitting in front of your TV or Apple Product on a Saturday night ignoring your friends because you want to watch a Dynamo-affecting Leagues Cup match and it’s the 87th minute, it’s 3-3, and Fecundo Torres goes to the corner to dribble the clock out rather than going for goal, watching impotently as every Orlando player hits a slow dribbler right to the Santos keeper, the murmurs that it’s in the Lions’ best interest to finish second already having echoed through the crowd at Avaya Stadium? God, what agony.
I hope we get it.
This week, with the Leagues Cup and Women’s World Cup group stages syncing up the way that they have, in which Leagues Cup matches start at 6:00pm CST and can finish past midnight and WWC matches pick back up around 1AM, I have found myself watching soccer on a nocturnal clock I have only tapped into rarely, during Summer 2020 when ESPN+ broadcasted live KBO games and during the 24-hour college basketball tipoff marathons of yore. This is the most truely that David Mitchell’s statement: “There is still everything to play for, and forever to play it in!” has ever rung to me.
Miami finished the group stage with 6 points, higher than either Orlando or Houston can finish, Miami also finished higher in the 2022 MLS table than both Orlando and Houston, also we are ultimately trying to sell tickets here and it would be an intelligent business decision to give Inter Miami as many home matches as possible in this tournament.
Robot Taylor, an unstoppable, insatiable goal-scoring machine that runs on concentrated, highly logical Finnish Spite and perfectly-placed passes from the greatest player in the world
I only do this momentarily to ensure that I appreciate the fact that I can only imagine what it’s like to be this way and have never needed to and will never need to live it out myself.