Exploring how a 1-0 advantage in soccer compares to leads in other sports

For the sake of our American audience, let me put this in football, baseball, and basketball terms

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GOOOOOOAL
GOOOOOOAL
Image: Getty Images

The World Cup comes to a conclusion this weekend with the third-place game wrapping up earlier today — Croatia defeated tournament Cinderella Morocco 2-1 — and the finals between Argentina and France taking place tomorrow. Lionel Messi’s legacy is on the line, meanwhile, Kylian Mbappé is attempting to add to his already stellar resume. You can imagine just how tense everyone watching in both countries is going to be when the opening whistle sounds. The first goal will create a wave of tension in the winning team’s country so palpable, we’ll probably feel it in the states, as long as it doesn’t get counteracted by the wave of unease that hits the losing team’s countrymen and women.

The first goal of a soccer match is of utmost importance, arguably the most pivotal turning point of any professional sport. According to a 2012 report analyzing 380 English Premier League games, the team that scores the first goal had a 66.1 win percentage (251 wins) that season. That’s a pretty huge advantage, and it had me thinking, “How valuable is a singular goal in soccer compared to leads in other sports?”

In order to calculate this, we’ll have to figure out a few things: At what point during a soccer match the first goal is usually scored, and the odds of a team winning if draws didn’t exist. Draws don’t happen in the NBA or MLB, and are so rare in the NFL that they may as well not exist. Therefore, we can’t use the 66.1 win percentage as a proper measuring stick for determining a team’s chances of winning in these other sports. According to the report, of those 380 games, there were 81 ties. We can assume half of those games would’ve resulted in wins. We’ll just leave the odd game out to make things easier. So of 379 games, we can assume that teams who scored first would’ve had a 291-88 (.768) record in that season if draws didn’t exist. So, that’s what we’re looking for, a lead that gives the winning team a 76.8 percent chance of winning.

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We also need to determine at what point the first goal usually happens. Obviously, a one-goal lead with only five minutes left to play is an astronomical advantage, but it’s not typical for the first goal of a soccer match. According to the report from earlier, on average, the first goal happens around the 30th or 31st minute, or roughly one-third of the way through the game. For the other sports, this would be equal to — 20 minutes into an NFL game (10 minutes left in the second quarter), 16 minutes into an NBA game (eight minutes left in the second quarter), and a full three innings into an MLB game.

Now, using various win probability calculators, we can determine exactly how big a lead each team would need in order to have a 76.8 percent chance of winning.

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NFL

For the NFL, we’re using Pro-Football-Reference’s calculator. Let’s assume a few things. For one, we’re going to presume that these teams are on an even footing. This isn’t a game between the Chiefs and Texans where the game starts and Kansas City already has a 90 percent chance to come away with the win. This is going to be a game between two identical NFL teams. We’re also going to assume that the losing team has the ball on their own 25-yard line. That’s how it works in soccer too. After getting scored on, the losing team gets the ball at midfield. For this instance, we’re assuming the losing team just got the ball back after a touchback.

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According to the calculator, a seven-point lead with 10 minutes to go in the second quarter would give the winning team a 75.6 percent chance of winning, whereas an eight-point lead would, at the same point in the game, give that team a 78.3 percent chance of winning. So, in order to get exactly a 76.8 percent chance of winning, the winning team would need somewhere between a seven and eight-point lead. Obviously, that’s impossible. It’s also not as huge a lead as I would’ve expected. One touchdown with 40 minutes left to play is enough to give you a three-in-four chance of winning. That’s crazy.

NBA

Moving to the NBA, we’re going to use Inpredictable’s calculator. Once again, let’s assume these are two evenly-matched teams and the losing team has possession of the ball. With eight minutes left in the second quarter, a 12-point lead would give the winning team a 75.2 percent chance of winning. A 13-point lead elevates their chances of winning to 77.2 percent. That’s pretty close to the golden 76.8 percentage, so let’s just say that one goal in soccer is equivalent to 13 points in an NBA game.

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MLB

In MLB, according to Gregstoll.com’s calculator, based on data gathered between 2000 and 2021, the home team has a 76.68 percent chance of winning if they have a two-run lead heading into the fourth inning. That’s already pretty close to the golden ratio. However, things get a little trickier when looking at visiting teams. A two-run lead heading into the fourth only gives the visitors a 72.41 percent chance of winning, whereas a three-run lead gives the visitors an 80.37 percent chance of winning. Those percentages would imply that a 2.55-run lead from the visitors would give them a 76.8 percent chance of winning. Since we know half of all MLB games are played at home and half are played on the road, we can deduce that a 2.275-run lead, across all games, would give the winning team approximately a 76.8 percent chance of winning.

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Conclusion

Here’s the Sparknotes for those of you who just wanted to scroll to the bottom and get some instant gratification — the first goal of a soccer match is approximately equivalent to:

  • An eight-point lead in the NFL.
  • A 13-point lead in the NBA.
  • A two-run lead in MLB.

As valuable as every goal is during a soccer match, I expected the leads necessary in every sport to equal a one-goal lead in soccer to be much higher. One touchdown? 13 points? Two runs? With how much time is left in those games, those seem like very surmountable deficits, whereas a one-goal deficit in soccer seems like a mountain even Miley Cyrus would hesitate to climb. I guess a 1-0 lead isn’t as safe as most people assume. That said, the first goal still gives the recipient an extraordinary advantage.