With the MLS Cup Playoffs on the verge of beginning, I’m going to embark on a post here that tends to evoke some debate. The diversity of opinions when it comes to how the top-flight of American soccer should decide their champion is vast. You could be a straight single table, most points takes all lover. Maybe you like the geographical conferences and a playoff system. Perhaps you even like what the current format has done. I’m not trying to say anyone’s method is poor, I just wanted to put out there an idea I’ve been developing, and would like feedback as well as input.
I am a guy who likes aspects of both systems. I like the fact that, in American sports, you have to prove yourself in that ultimate winner-take-all match. In the Big 4 sports, you don’t get to lose the last three matchdays and still back into a title based on early-season form.
Of course, I also like that the regular season means almost everything in the European leagues. Every team plays the other twice in most leagues. It’s more about consistency than sneaking into a Wild Card slot and getting hot in the last two months.
So, here it goes. This would be what I would suggest as a hybrid method for deciding the Major League Soccer Champion each season.
First off, there would be an absolute championship match. If MLS likes my idea, they can call it whatever they want. But this would be the makeup:
Ultimate MLS Championship Game = Supporter’s Shield Winner vs. MLS Cup Winner.
This has probably been suggested before. I have a tweak to the MLS Cup though, and it would coincide with the end of the regular season.
Within the last month or so of the season’s close, you begin the MLS Cup. Every MLS franchise gets a shot in my format, though. Seeding would occur based on a single table based on a midseason point total. Let’s take 2012 for example: with 19 teams, #14 plays #19, 15 plays 18, 16 plays 17. Then from there, you would have a typical tournament bracket. The Cup matches would not be home-and-away aggregate, but if the higher seed is drawn at their stadium, the match would move to the away club’s venue (a la the FA Cup). Extra time and penalties would then be used to decide a second draw.
Ideally for me, the Semifinals of the MLS Cup tournament would be scheduled the weekend following the season’s completion.
Now you might say, “So what if the Supporter’s Shield Winner is in the Semifinals?” That team would be removed from the playoffs (since they would be automatically in the Championship Game), and would be replaced by the team with the highest final point total not left in the brackets. It wouldn’t absolutely ensure the 2nd best team in the Semifinals; in fact, a team who had earned the Supporters Shield early could theoretically tank their match to try to keep a rival out. This gives a great incentive for every team to give their all.
From there, you have your Semifinals, and Finals, all within two weeks of the end of the season. The winner of the MLS Cup would advance to the Ultimate MLS Championship Game to face the Supporter’s Shield holder. That match would then determine the ultimate victor, preferably on a neutral field.
Obviously, one ramification of this would be that Conferences wouldn’t be necessary. Personally, I don’t think the league is large enough for conferences to be that effective. Look at the current state, with a proliferation of higher-quality teams in the Western Conference. I just think that there aren’t enough benefits of Conference designations at this point. You hate the teams nearest you, because you can easily travel to their venue and tell them how much you dislike them.
What would be the downside? In my mind, one thing would be the inherent ability of a Cup-style competition to produce a less-than-deserving champion. Birmingham City in last season’s Carling Cup is a perfect example. The counterargument would come from the fact that many of the top teams sat their best players in early rounds, thus cheapening the tournament. In the case of my suggested MLS Cup, there would be no reason for a top team to blow it off, even if they were doing well in the Supporter’s Shield competition. If you get knocked out of that Cup, your season is over (unless you are top of the table).
Another downpoint could be that it makes the final few weeks of the season pointless for a lot of teams. But wouldn’t you say that the last 2 weeks have been pretty meaningless for LA? How about Vancouver? New England? Even in the current state there are issues of games being afterthoughts or lacking drama.
The other thing that would be troublesome would be an already stuffed season fixture list. Between the CONCACAF Champions League, US Open Cup, and midsummer friendlies, it’s tough to work out the logistics perfectly. The “MLS Cup” portion would be held at the same time as the CCL, and that would make for some dicey moments, especially if you had 2nd legs.
I’d like to hear your ideas. Yes, I’m sure there are plenty of places for criticism. The point of this isn’t to state that I think this is perfect; what I hope is that this may allow some to consider alternatives. I don’t think that Major League Soccer considers the current format the end of the road. As long as we continue to strive for the best method, we’ll hopefully edge closer.