Matt Watson in action last night in Montreal

WEBCAST—In a bruising, ugly and perhaps even cynical contest before 7,502 fans in Montreal tonight, the Carolina RailHawks lost to the Impact 1-0 in the first leg of the USSF-D2 Pro League semifinal. But in a demonstration of the odd tactics that prevail in two-legged knockout fixtures, perhaps the Railhawks won.

Indeed, a Montreal-based observer in Twitterland, @footycanuck, wrote afterward, “[N]ot a great game tonight. Not a good result for Montreal. Uphill battle in Cary, Sunday.”

Uphill battle? Montreal’s ahead, 1-0! How can this be so?

It could be an argument for employing the away-goals rule that is used in UEFA and CONCACAF Champions League play, but more on that, and @footycanuck’s argument, in a moment.

Six yellow cards were handed out—four to Carolina—in a sloppy, chippy game that saw only a fluky goal provide a victory margin. The RailHawks’ Tom Heinemann, a 71st-minute substitute, had a goal disallowed late in the game over a close but correctly decided offside call, and Matt Watson in the first half, and Marques Davidson early in the second, missed close chances.

Online viewers of the contest were treated to the highly opinionated but entertaining commentary of Brian Wilde and Noel Butler. From the get-go, they were hissing at the RailHawks tactics, which they deemed to be negative. Indeed, RailHawks coach Martin Rennie broke with recent precedent and started with a lone striker up top, Etienne Barbara, and going a step further, included two holding midfielders, Davidson and Amir Lowery, in his starting lineup. The resulting shape was a Mourinho-esque 4-2-3-1, and the strategy was to defend tightly and physically in the final third, and look for chances on the counterattack.

The Impact went ahead in the 35th minute off a Leonardo Di Lorenzo free kick from 18 yards. RailHawks keeper Eric Reed was caught flat-footed as Di Lorenzo’s shot squirted past the wall and between him and his teammate on the right post.

One would have thought that the goal would have opened up the game, that the RailHawks would have been forced to commit more players—like Gregory Richardson, who remained on the bench for the duration of the game—forward on the attack in the second half. Instead, Rennie removed playmaker and clutch performer Daniel Paladini 14 minutes after he picked up a caution in the 53rd minute, presumably to rest him and, more importantly, keep him safe from the second yellow card that would have ruled him out of Sunday’s game.

The entire second half was a ragtag charade of injuries, caution cards and scuffles. It’s quite possible that not more than 30 minutes of soccer was played out of the 45-minute period, and Wilde and Butler were confidently predicting six minutes of stoppage time (five were added on).

But could the lack of action have been to the RailHawks’ benefit? Perhaps by minimizing the amount of effective soccer that was being played, they were trying to prevent the Impact from adding to their tally. These two-legged contests are really just a single, 180-minute game, and by keeping the margin to zero or, at most, minus one, the RailHawks might have been laying the groundwork for the league’s second-most potent offense to go to work on Sunday before a home crowd.

The nakedly partisan Montreal announcers thought so; they seemed to get angrier as the game progressed and, late in the game, were grumbling that the RailHawks were in no hurry to take a 25-yard free kick that could have yielded an equalizing goal. During the build-up to that kick, the RailHawks’ Brad Rusin suddenly crumpled to the pitch—apparently the victim of a jostling elbow—while Heinemann walked over to the linesman to appeal for a foul call. Bizarrely, Wilde and Butler began accusing the RailHawks of time-wasting, while down a goal with less than 10 minutes to play.

What to make of this? Why would the RailHawks deliberately employ a rope-a-dope strategy? Why not simply try to win the damn game, hostile crowd of cheese-eating, universal health care-loving, wannabe Frogs be damned?

I guess the answer—if this hypothesis of negativism is true—is that the RailHawks recognized the two-legged semifinal for what it is: a 180-minute game. The advantage in the first half goes to the home team—Montreal in this case—while the second half advantage goes likewise to the home team—the RailHawks on Sunday.

Look at the RailHawks’ situation: They return to Cary down a goal, to be sure. But Richardson will be fully rested, having not played tonight. Heinemann played only 19 minutes; we can expect him in the starting lineup Sunday alongside Richardson. Allan Russell didn’t play tonight and will be fresh Sunday. Paladini played 67 minutes and will be fresher than Montreal midfielders Di Lorenzo, Le Gall and Tony Donatelli.

(On the negative side of the personnel ledger for the RailHawks, the battered defensive line took another hit when Devon McKenney was stretchered off in the 63rd minute. No word yet on his condition.)

Soccer is, among other things, about carefully deploying your resources. It’s not possible to press constantly or to commit numbers on every attack. You have to pick your spots. The result then, can be that sometime teams will play to prevent a goal, reasoning that the opportunity to score will come on another day. And that seems to be what occurred tonight in Montreal.

I hate to write this, but I’m predicting 90 minutes of trench warfare on Sunday. Last year, the RailHawks traveled to Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs and lost 1-0. The Whitecaps came to Cary and ground out a 0-0 draw to advance. There’s no reason to expect Montreal to have a different game plan.

Game is at 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17. Tickets here.

So, what about the away-goals rule, under which two-legged ties are broken by whichever team has the greater number of goals scored on their away legs? It’s used in the UEFA and CONCACAF Champions League, as I mentioned, and it aims to produce two effects. First, it encourages visiting teams to try to score goals, especially on the opening legs (no one would be claiming that the RailHawks have the upper hand after tonight’s game in which they failed to score).

And, perhaps more importantly for those who dislike penalty shootouts, it dramatically reduces the incidence of victors being determined by PKs (the only results that lead to penalty kicks are the inverse scores—that is, if the RailHawks were to win 1-0 on Sunday after 120 minutes of normal and extra time, the game would go to penalties).

Not everyone loves the away-goals rule, principally because so much value is arbitrarily added to goals scored on the road. For example: If the RailHawks were to win Sunday’s game 2-1, they would lose under the away goals rule despite being tied 2-2 on aggregate. In order to prevail once they’ve conceded an away goal to Montreal, they would have to win by two goals.

I’m actually something of a fan of the away goals rule. Ironically, one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen where the away-goals rule was in effect involved the Montreal Impact. In the spring of 2009, as Impact fans are well aware, they traveled to Torreón in Mexico to play Santos Laguna in the second leg of the CCL quarterfinals after winning 2-0 at home before 55,571 fans (yes, 55,571) in Olympic Stadium.

What followed was an epic collapse. The Impact scored two goals—away goals, of course—in the first half en route to a 2-1 halftime lead, which gave them a seemingly insurmountable edge: Santos Laguna now would have to win this second game by three goals, since they had no away goals. Incredibly, Montreal yielded four goals in the second half, including two in stoppage time, to lose 5-2, and 5-4 on aggregate (Santos’ fifth and final goal was required—had the game ended 4-4 on aggregate, Montreal would have prevailed on the away-goals tiebreaker).