One of the most fascinating aspects of soccer is its formula for declaring a champion. In no other sport (mind you I come from an American sports background) can a match that pits the team at the top of the league versus a middle-of-the-pack team be the game that goes further than any other in determining that season’s champion. Chelsea vs Bolton (left), for all the marbles. Who knew? But that is what makes the EPL and all soccer leagues so enthralling, because such a tepid-looking fixture at the start of the season can prove to be a title-deciding match, creating gripping drama where one expected little.
Warning: American sports will be discussed below!
Here in the U.S., all major sports run a regular season of various lengths in which teams must qualify for a post-season playoff tournament, the winner of which is crowned champion of the sport. So ingrained is the obsession with this so-called “second season” in each sport that to set up a round-robin style system akin to soccer would be tantamount to blasphemy in the American sports landscape. So much so that even our only major soccer league (MLS) utilizes a qualification-for-playoffs format to determine its champion, which is certainly laughed at by the rest of the footballing world.
Certainly, playoff formats yield heart-stopping drama that any sports fan craves, for once in the playoffs your team is one loss away from season over, which sets up pulsating action whether in a one-off format (NFL), or a best-of, series-based format (NBA, NHL, MLB). In fact, most of the greatest sporting contests in American history have been during playoff season, as the tension is at its highest, and where every play and every call are magnified to an absurd degree, creating talking points that can span decades.
As an American, I would never want to witness an attempt to replace our current model for determining champions. Playoff season is a yearly rite of passage, it is a part of who we are: rooting for the underdog, leveling the playing field, and forcing elite teams to earn their stripes by grinding their way through a “second season” to win a title. And, frankly, the NFL playoffs are my favorite time of year.
But soccer’s format, which sets all teams on equal footing throughout the season by having each club play every other club in the league twice (once at home and once away), is the fairest and best system for determining a league’s best team over the course of a season, which is what each sporting league’s champion should unarguably be.
American sports fans have long seen upstart, yet largely inferior, teams run the table and win the championship because of the “crapshoot” nature of the playoff format. Take for example the NFL’s 2007 New York Giants. Here is a team that played inconsistently throughout the season, losing their first two games, then reeling off six wins in a row, then ending their season winning four and losing four. Against teams that qualified for the playoffs, the Giants went a paltry 2 wins, 5 losses. But their season was good enough to get them into the playoff tournament, where they shockingly knocked off the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys and second-seeded Green Bay Packers to reach the Super Bowl. There, they faced arguably the greatest team in NFL history, the New England Patriots. The Patriots had just gone undefeated in the regular season (a perfect 16-0 record), only the second time that had been achieved in league history. The record aside, the Patriots were ruthless, with an offense that could score at will, and a ball-hawking defense that forced timely turnovers. Yet, remarkably, the vastly overachieving Giants pulled off arguably the biggest upset in American sports history, defeating the invincible Patriots 17-14 to become NFL champs.
And it is here where I often am at odds with the American sports majority. We celebrate such upsets here, and wax poetic about the Giants’ sensational tournament run that crowned them champions. But that is just it: were the Giants truly the best team in football, which is what a league champion should be, or did they just get hot for a four-game stretch and simply win a tournament?
Such a quandary is rendered moot by soccer’s system for crowning their champion. Over the course of an arduous 38-game season where all sides have an even playing field with identical schedules, the team that earns the most points by the end of the season wins the league. It is beautiful in its simplicity. Can you imagine if in the 2003-04 Premier League season an undefeated Arsenal had to enter a playoff tournament against the top 8 teams in the league to become champions? And then were to lose against a Charlton Athletic that had luck on their side? Sure, under such a system, Charlton would technically be champions, but everyone and their mother knows who the best side in England were in 2004. And it certainly wouldn’t have been the Addicks.
Like I said above, I would never replace the American system of playoffs. It produces incredible drama right to the end of the season, something that is often lost in soccer’s version, where a champion can be crowned with 8 matches still to go. But, and most importantly, the aim of any sport should be to have a schedule format that organically determines who the best team in the league is and crown that club league champion, not the team that happens to get hot in a truncated mini-season after the real season is finished.
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