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Why Soccer’s Championship Format is Best


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.

Giants' 2007 NFL Champions: the spitting image of the American discrepancy between "champion" and "the best"

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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  1. niko

    June 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Do you really think that the final game of the English championship should be Chelsea vs Bolton ? if the Premier League had a final match between Chelsea vs Manchester Utd, it would stop UK

  2. Tom

    April 15, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    I just made the Arsenal comment because I thought it was interesting. Buy yes, after this week, it looks as though Arsenal only accomplishmnent this year will be qualifying for next year’s champ’s league. By their high standards, another mediocre year.

  3. leeboy

    April 14, 2010 at 6:53 pm

    I think the differences in formats should be celebrated. US sports and European soccer attract worldwide audiences because their setup is ingrained in their respective cultures and works. Neither is wrong!

  4. WayneBridgeSucks

    April 14, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    While I appreciate the read and agree with some of your points, I think you are trying to compare apples to oranges. The NFL is a violent sport that has a 16 game season in a league with more than 16 teams. I would be all for a home and away fixture and then a separate NFL cup competition, but that simply is not feasible with the nature of the sport.

    It is also way more up and down from week to week because of how high scoring games are and how valuable turnovers are along with how injuries at positions negatively impact a team. The positions in American football are sorted out by size, movement, skill required, and speed. Soccer players of different positions can all look the same. If a key player in the NFL goes down its almost impossible to replace him, whereas it is much more likely to find a suitable sub in soccer because of roster size and a max of 14 players per side per game.

    American Football and English Football are both great competitions, its just hard to compare them. The current structures work for each league.

  5. Dave B.

    April 14, 2010 at 11:41 am

    See, I don’t think you can ignore the Cups in this whole thing. Both American and European leagues have two parts to their season.

    You have the regular season and you have a tournament. It’s just the in US we have the tournament at the end of the season, and give out one trophy. Europe decides to split the two apart and give out two trophies.

    Personally I like both systems and I’m not really sure either is superior. At least comparing say the Premier League to the NFL or MLB. (The NHL, NBA and MLS waterdown their playoffs by allowing way too many teams in – watering down the regular season as well).

    So really the key with a playoff is how its handled. Would anybody here boycott a 1 vs. 2, winner take all playoff match held at Wembley every year?

    • wozza

      April 14, 2010 at 11:55 am

      “So really the key with a playoff is how its handled. Would anybody here boycott a 1 vs. 2, winner take all playoff match held at Wembley every year? ”

      It’s more a question of whether it would be allowed to happen by the fans. There would be a huge outcry if that was attempted by the EPL, so much so that I doubt it’s a possibility.

      As far as I’m concerned, the method of having the top of the table after 38 games being the champion is the best solution.

      As others have said, there are knockout/playoff type alternative competitions in most of Europe to satisfy the underdog romance – CL, FA Cup, Copa del Rey etc. But the domestic leagues are the highest achievement, at least to most fans. If Chelsea win the EPL and, say, Man Utd had won the CL, the best team in the country for that season would still generally be considered to be Chelsea.

  6. Tom

    April 14, 2010 at 11:18 am

    The European format is the best because both the regular season (the domestic leagues) and the play-offs (The Champion’s League) are celebrated. Plus the domestic cups, albiet to a lesser extent. Doubles and Triples are notable because they are not often achieved. By the way, I’m not sure the league winner is always the best team, Arsenal could win the league this year despite loosing evey one of their fixtures to the next 3 teams (Chelsea, ManU, and Man City).

    The MLS, however, should keep it’s playoffs because they are engrained in American culture and help the league get big games on TV. What it should do is make the regular season as significant as possible by having a single table, seeding the play-offs 1-8 (as opposed to the current two brackets of 1-4), and having the three CONCACAF champions league places that are not the MLS cup winners awarded by regular season place in the standing.

    • fd

      April 14, 2010 at 4:08 pm

      But then that would devalue the us open cup

      • wozza

        April 14, 2010 at 5:46 pm

        A cup tournament should be able to stand on it’s own merit. If it’s only perceived as a route to another competition, then it’s already devalued.

    • Patrick Dresslar

      April 14, 2010 at 11:41 pm

      Yes Tom, but they won’t win the league. And 99% of the time the best team in the league that season is crowned champs, something American sports simply cannot compete with.

  7. Dan

    April 14, 2010 at 11:06 am

    I believe you are wrong about the goal of professional sports. While certainly determining the best team is one of the main objectives. The first and foremost goal of professional sports is to entertain the paying fans. I believe that is why american sports leagues have playoffs. Playoff games are always meaningful and for the most part exciting, they allow more teams (and thus fans) to stay in contention longer.

    England I believe has found a nice mix with cup competitions and a season long round robin.

  8. Jason Gatties

    April 14, 2010 at 10:26 am

    I just wonder why everyone seems to forget that from The Football League down in the English system, there’s always a playoff to determine the final promotion spot.

    • wozza

      April 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

      Yes, for promotion, but not for the championship itself.

  9. David

    April 14, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I just wish that there wasn’t so much emphasis on the playoffs in American sports. What I love about soccer in Europe is that there are so many different things to be playing for which keeps all of the teams seasons interesting, but at the end of the day, the best team in the each country is decided via the league. To decide who the best team in Europe is, you have to be one of the top in your country to get a chance at proving your superiority within the continent.

    And I think that the Europa League and the Champions League are Europe’s version of the NFL playoffs. The best team doesn’t always win. Take Liverpool for example, they won two Champions League Trophies without ever finishing top of the league. But at the end of the day, the team that wins the EPL will be the best in England, and it would be quite hard to argue the contrary.

    • brn442

      April 14, 2010 at 10:29 am

      “Liverpool for example, they won two Champions League Trophies without ever finishing top of the league. ” Really ? When did they win the other one?

  10. Andrew

    April 14, 2010 at 2:16 am

    If my memory serves me correctly Chicago Bears went undefeated in the 40’s and Dolphins in 1972.

    Also, though not in the NFL, Browns went undefeated in the 40’s.

    Not a major issue though, great article. Wouldn’t ever change the MLB postseason format, though I would like to see promotion and relegation, assuming a perfect world without wage issues.

    • Patrick Dresslar

      April 14, 2010 at 11:10 pm

      I stated the Patriots were the second team in NFL history to go undefeated…

  11. mintox

    April 14, 2010 at 1:34 am

    A championship will reward the team that has been consistently better than a majority of the teams over the season. This is one definition of being the best.

    A play-off can reward a team that on it’s day can beat any other. This is no less a definition of being the best.

    Sometimes the same team falls into both, sometimes in the case of play-offs, a team that has had an incosistent season or injury interrupted season can step up and win.

    I don’t see one as being any better than the other or fairer for that matter. What about a team in a championship that suffers horrific injuries during the season, they could be the best team but for injuries (Arsenal?).

    • wozza

      April 14, 2010 at 8:16 am

      “they could be the best team but for injuries” – the word “but” is quite important there.

      I would have been the greatest player of all time, but for my lack of talent, drive and boots. Oh and a dodgy left knee.

  12. erik

    April 14, 2010 at 1:27 am

    What exactly is the Champions League then? Or the World Cup? A system where a team thats obviously not the best in Europe *cough*Liverpool 2005*cough* not the best team in England, yet scraped together a couple of clutch performances in the most important games to win the game’s most coveted trophy. These one-off games are the ones the players and fans alike look forward to the most, and you’re kidding yourself if you think that soccer suffers because of a playoff system.

    Baseball and Basketball are statistic driven sports. The probability of an underdog winning one game is possible. But over 7 games, eventually the odds favor the better team. Sure, there are still moments of high drama and underdogs still do win. But those are the best moments in sports. Soccer is a much easier game to be “lucky” in, where a poor team can score a fluke goal and play 90 minutes parking the bus in front of goal. This luck is alot harder in American style sports, especially over a 7-game series.

    • Brn442

      April 14, 2010 at 2:33 am

      The champions “league” is a cup competition. It’s not league in the true sense. As for your point about soccer being a game easier to be lucky in? Surely you must be joking, apperently, you’ve never seen a game of baseball, plus, if a team can can score one more goal than their opponent and park that so called bus for the better part of 90 mins, then you’re not that poor are they?

  13. brn442

    April 14, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Phillip is right, until recently, baseball had a proud history of league play culminating in winning a pennant. Also not all “soccer” leagues are that simple. The smaller leagues in Europe, incl. Scotland have “exotic” formats. You need a degree in calculus to figure out the Brazilian league, and as far as I’m concerned – the apertura / clausura format many Latin leagues have adopted, is a pointless joke. American style play-offs aren’t looking that bad now is it?

    • niko

      June 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm

      You said: “You need a degree in calculus to figure out the Brazilian league”
      but it’s not that anymore, since 2003 the Brazilian Championship is like any European championship with 20 teams, 38 rounds, the top 4 teams qualifying to Copa Libertadores (South america’s Champions league), from 5th to 12th to Copa Sudamericana (south america’s uefa cup)and the 4 worst teams relegated to second division, and of course the champion is the team that makes more points over the season (except flamengo and corinthians who pays the referees to win titles, but that’s another story)

  14. Lebronfeldt

    April 14, 2010 at 12:04 am

    I think geography has little to do with how we do things in the US. It’s all about money. The owners need to have so many home dates to make money. Ever wonder why the NBA drags it’s playoffs into June…the tv execs know they make more money by doing this the same with the NCAA basketball tourney. The NFL is considering adding 1 or 2 more regular season games because the owners want more revenue.

    If US sports would ever have a balanced schedule they would lose money.

    The other thing about the soccer leagues in Europe is the league cups. So they have another competition they compete in.

  15. BobbyB

    April 13, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    The European leagues do have a playoff, it’s called the Champions League (and a lesser extent, the Europa League which is kind of like the also-ran bowl games in American college football). The Champions League is the text book definition of a play-off – participation in it is restricted to teams that finish at a certain level in their respective leagues. All of the individual leagues are like baseball’s divisions…by finishing at the top of your league you get to play for the big prize, the Champions League. How else to you explain teams that didn’t win their league that have a chance to participate in the Champions League?

    • wozza

      April 14, 2010 at 8:09 am

      “How else to you explain teams that didn’t win their league that have a chance to participate in the Champions League? ”


  16. jason

    April 13, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Yeah the vast size of America has much to do with it. I think in terms of sqaure miles, England is about the same as Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC. So that gives you a bit of an idea.

    As far as MLS goes, dont expect them to abandon playoffs anytime soon. The commissioner has made that clear. He even says in a way that makes you think he enjoys sticking it the soccer purists in fact.

  17. SeminoleGunner

    April 13, 2010 at 10:21 pm

    Enjoyable article.

    I’m a big fan of college football, which may be the one American sport of any consequence that has resisted a playoff. Currently the debate over whether a playoff should be instituted is one of the biggest issues in the game. Many see the “cinderella” appeal of the 2007 Giants as a reason to support playoffs, but like you I see those sort of results as one of the biggest reasons to avoid them.

    I think soccer’s system of having a league operate alongside cup competitions probably gets it best. Those who prefer to see the cream rise to the top over a long season can look to the league champion as the best team. While those who prefer upsets and cinderella runs can enjoy what the cups offer.

    • CTBlues

      April 13, 2010 at 11:44 pm

      People want a playoff in college football because they don’t want a computer and a bunch of coaches or press polls deciding the national champion. Why bother even having the game any way?

  18. Mat

    April 13, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    This belittles certain aspects to WHY you have a tournament in the end. Sure, I’ll grant you that clearly the most evenly approached champion is in fact a 38-game round robin as exists in the EPL. But I won’t let you off with the NFL — there MUST be a tournament. 32 teams, and 16 games, well that necessitates a playoff. If you wanted a round robin in the NFL, it requires 62 games. Gridiron absolutely necessitates it.

    Basketball needs to have more games to thrive; they play 82. Could you have a 58 game home & home season? Sure. But what you leave out in this article is the geography of the United States. It is often preferable to play teams within a geographic area because fans become familiar, form rivalries, and the level of play is higher because travel is not exhaustive. The NHL is the same situation.

    Baseball, as you noted, plays a very odd schedule, but let’s remember that this existed because of a merger. Beyond that, baseball is so screwed up it has two sets of rules, and its championship sees both sets of rules in play. There’s so much fundamentally “wrong” with baseball, it’s not really a stepping-stone argument. Ditch the DH, and we can talk.

    In the end, I believe that MLS is moving in the right direction. I certainly would like to see a different setup in the playoffs, and this year’s balanced season will be interesting. Never has the Shield seemed so important. I would propose a different system, where you have conference seeding create a “ladder”, wherein the West and East each have 4 sides in. Instead of these silly home & homes that don’t carry away goals, I propose that the 4th seeded team plays at the 3rd, then the winner goes @ 2nd, winner @ 1st. The winner of these conference title matches goes on to compete for the MLS Cup. This would be easily expandable by one team to include 5 per conference when there are 20+ teams. This tournament would have finality, and could also be played such that a draw would allow the higher seed to proceed if you really wanted to move past with no extra time / kicks, though that would be controversial. This would make every game a knock-out, something desperately missing from the current structure.

    In the end, it’s a matter of geography. It’s not *that* foreign to non-American fans, rather, they have a different reality. What’s the longest trip in the EPL now? 3 hours by train?

    • Patrick Dresslar

      April 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm

      I’ll agree with your NFL argument, the sport is too grueling to play that many games. I have no problems with the NFL, which is my favorite American sports league. This article was simply stating that American sports often crown a champion that is not worthy of the moniker “the best in that sport that season.”

    • CTBlues

      April 13, 2010 at 11:41 pm

      Well obviously if you are a baseball fan you root for an NL team. “Get rid of the DH”, please. The reason there are two sets of rules in the MLB is that the AL was dieing so they needed to differentiate themselves from the NL so they added the DH and guess what the AL is a way better league now than the NL. The AL has won 21 World Series since the DH has been added and the NL has won 15 and as you stated they have to play by both leagues rules depending on who is the home team. The only thing the MLB needs to fix is have the season end sooner by having fewer off days at the beginning of the season, playing more day night double headers and have fewer inner league games, and the All-star game shouldn’t decide who has home field advantage in the World Series the team with the better record should.

      • Mat

        April 14, 2010 at 8:54 am

        Actually, I’m ok — add the DH to the NL. I prefer shorter games, but I would prefer a standard set of rules.

        -3 huh. Dang. I’m getting hated on!

  19. Zachary Slaton

    April 13, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    The biggest travesty was RSL winning the MLS league title last season. While the Giants upset of the Patriots was bad, at least they had a winning record. American sports obsession with a playoff format has led to MLS allowing more than half the league into the playoff tournament. Last season this culminated in RSL, a Western Conference team, being let into the tournament from the Eastern Conference even though they had a losing record. They got lucky the entire tournament, and had to play a single good game of soccer to knock off the far superior LA Galaxy. I don’t want the rest of the leagues to change their playoff format, but I don’t understand MLS’s obsession with submitting to American sports fans’ obsession with playoffs. I hope that the progression towards 20 teams leads MLS to a true table championship and ultimately some relegation/promotion format.

    • Patrick Dresslar

      April 13, 2010 at 10:30 pm

      I couldn’t agree more…really hope in my lifetime I see an American soccer league with relegation/promotion

      • BobbyB

        April 13, 2010 at 11:37 pm

        You’re going to be severely disappointed because it won’t happen. Why would an owner pay millions of dollars in franchise fees with the possibility that his team could be relegated to a lower league? Will never happen.

        • Alex E

          April 14, 2010 at 12:41 am

          The only way we’d have relegation in MLS would be if the league owned both Division 1 and Division 2. But that’s a long way off, and probably not going to happen.

        • wozza

          April 14, 2010 at 7:59 am

          Totally agree, BobbyB. The franchise system makes relegation next to impossible. I tried to convince some baseball supporting friends that relegation makes for an even more exiting season, but they’d completely bought the corporate/franchise line and just wouldn’t have it.

          Risk isn’t welcome in American sports.

  20. leeboy

    April 13, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    I think this is also why US sports seem so alien to sports fans in the UK. On the whole our team sports operate in a home and away format, with the overall team with the highest points total crowned as champion at the end of the season. Of course in football we have play-offs for the third promotion spots in lower divisions, and in professional rugby union and league there is now a play-off to determine the leagues’ champions from the top 4, but its all self contained in one division, not like in the NFL where there are multiple divisions running with seemingly incomprehensible match schedules.

    I think the simplicity of league football is brilliant, and is the bread and butter of the game. Of course there are cup competitions running throughout the season which adds some knock-out drama and makes the season more unpredictable, FA Cup, League Cup, the 2 European competitions, but at the end of the day every team wants to win the league – it shows that you are consistently the best team

  21. Phillip Badger

    April 13, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Look at the way the 2 major baseball leagues were set up until divisions were first implemented in 1969: Each league had 8 teams (later 10), but for over 50 years, the AL and NL each had a 154 game schedule, in which each of the eight teams played the other seven 22 times each (11 home, 11 away), to comprise the 154 games. Then the winner of each league played each other in the World Series at the end of the season, no playoffs.

    So, the non-playoff system is not entirely unheard of for major sports in the US…the sport with the most history in the USA has done it for more than half its history.

    • Patrick Dresslar

      April 13, 2010 at 9:14 pm

      While I couldn’t get to that (or else the post would have been excruciatingly long), I have had countless arguments with friends about baseball trying to be too much like the other major US sports. The simplicity you mentioned (11 home, 11 away) and two leagues facing off in a series made baseball great.

      I like that system much better than the asinine wild-card, where you don’t even have to win your division but can be declared “the best.”

  22. AtlantaPompey

    April 13, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    The American sports leagues are too large and way too spread out for it to be realistic to have a schedule where everyone plays each team the same number of times. Getting rid of teams is not a possibility either, as Bud Selig, the Baseball Commissioner found out the hard way in 2001 when he proposed contraction and received death threats. He’s still not very well liked in Minnesota.

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