A couple of weeks ago it was reported that Celtic, Dundee and the Scottish Premiership Football League (SPFL) were close to committing to playing a competitive league game in the US. To describe the idea as a bad one would be a massive understatement.
The proposal is borne from a misreading of the sophistication of US soccer market. MLS outstripped the Scottish League as a spectacle a number of years ago, and what is more, fans in North America can watch the best soccer from around the world on television and online in greater quantities than most.
Simply put, North American soccer fans are not going to be taken in by a gimmick match involving two teams from a league that is stuck in reverse gear.
Hard times forces organizations and individuals to reassess approaches, practices and habits, and that is definitely the case with the SPFL. The Celtic versus Dundee idea is a horrible one, but on Monday the SPFL hit on an initiative that might have legs. The announcement related to the revamping of the Scottish League Cup and the details can be found at the end of this article.
Of course, good organizations are constantly assessing how they do business, and they look to accentuate the positives and mitigate or even fix the negatives. That brings me around to Major League Soccer. The 20th season came to an end on Sunday with the Portland Timbers crowned MLS Cup winners, becoming the 10th team to win MLS’s biggest prize.
The playoffs provided exceptional drama and entertainment over 39 days, and surely every died-in-the-wool MLS fan watching the Timbers win on Sunday thought back to late October, when Portland’s Cup hopes came literally within an inch of being still-borne. That was when Sporting Kansas City’s Saad Abdul-Salaam’s penalty kick hit both posts and stayed out in what had become a sudden death penalty decider.
There were other terrific moments and great games, and some may even argue that the fight for playoff spots down the stretch also offered high drama. But as strong as MLS finished, it still takes a long time to get to that finish, and it is at the front end of the season where opportunity lies for MLS.
It is clear that the Supporters’ Shield is never going to have the prestige that a league winning campaign has in Europe and other countries around the world. The US Open Cup is a tournament of good intentions, but unless it falls under the direct control of MLS, it is never going to get the respect that a century old competition deserves.
And that takes me back to the beginning of the MLS season, and in particular the time between kickoff in March and the beginning of June.
What MLS needs is an early season competition to reward teams that hit form early rather than offering extra incentive to teams that start slow and then build to a season-ending climax. Rather like the SPFL reformatting of its League Cup, what I’m proposing is a group stage competition with a last eight qualifying for single knockout rounds in the quarterfinal, semifinal and final stages.
MLS has been very successful at building and emphasizing local and regional rivalries, and this new competition could build on that by grouping these rivals at the group stage.
It is impossible to propose a format for this “new competition” that will stick given last week’s announcement of further expansion ahead.
A format for the current 20-team MLS is not going to still work as the league expands to 28 teams over a yet to be defined timeline. A five group-four team system might be a starting point, but as the league expands, other permutations would have to be considered. There again, the 34-game unbalanced schedule will have to be revisited anyway as new teams join the league, so it would just be one more consideration.
Not so fast
“Win-win” is always the aim, but in practice it is much more difficult to achieve. So if MLS did look at a new early season cup competition built around regional rivalries, what are some of negatives? In the spirit of full disclosure, here are three possible problems.
CONCACAF Champions League – Any MLS teams qualifying for the knock out round of this competition starts competitive games before MLS gets underway. A new competition might generate additional fixture congestion at the front end of the season if the number of regular season MLS matches was not reduced.
Friendlies against foreign teams – The annual trek by famous club sides from Europe and the Americas to play MLS teams each summer is a regular occurrence. These friendly games provide a revenue stream for MLS teams but perhaps not as much as we might think once the visitors have skulked back home after pocketing even larger checks. Hopefully, sometime soon, MLS will outgrow the need to be patronized.
World Cup years – Every four years there is the conflict between MLS play and the magnet for top players (and fans attention) of the World Cup. This particularly hurts teams heavy with US internationals. Would a new early season competition exacerbate the situation. Or would it make no difference?
The “New” Scottish League Cup
The revamp of the League Cup competition was one of a number of announcements made by the Scottish SPFL on Monday. For the reformatted competition 40-teams will be drawn into eight groups of five. They will play in a round robin format that starts mid-July and concludes by the end of the month.
Any clubs participating in European qualifiers will join the competition in the knock out round of 16 along with the eight group winners and best four second-placed teams. Seeding will ensure that each group will have a Premiership team included, and the groups will be regionalized wherever possible.
There will be penalty shootouts in the case of drawn games at the group stage with the winners awarded a bonus point.
BT signed on as the tournament’s TV broadcaster for four years in a deal estimated at $12 million. They will broadcast six live group games and all seven from the quarter final on.
The rights fee is chicken feed for many leagues, but it is double what the old format generated. A two-weekend winter break in January was also announced.
The “new” Scottish League Cup structure looks a lot like the format that existed from the inception of the competition in 1946 through to and including the 1982 competition. For four decades the tournament consisted of an initial group stage that generated a final eight.
The draw was often regionalized, which meant that the season kicked off with a number of derbies and other games against close rivals. The other twist to the competition was that, for many seasons, the groups were seeded, with four groups comprising the top 16 teams in the country with lower ranking teams being drawn into other groups.
The result was that the quarterfinal stage provided guaranteed match ups between a top team and a lower ranking side. Given that the quarterfinals were played over two-legs, surprises were rare, but the format did help generate money for lower level teams when playing teams from the then First Division.
The semifinal stage was a one,-game knock out followed by the final that was normally played before the end of October.
Perhaps it was the product of an era, when there was more emphasis on scoring rather than not conceding goals, but the tournament did produce lots of goals and some surprise winners, with eight clubs other than the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers lifting the trophy 15 times in 37 seasons.
More from Bobby McMahon:
- Emerging Van Dijk follows well-trodden path from Celtic to Southampton.
- Plot points align for Juventus, Milan.
- Vieira appointment shows CFG yet to learn from Lampard debacle.
- Tottenham is entering a defining period on and off the field.