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Leagues: UEFA Champions League

How European soccer bears similarities to American sports

European soccer and American sports

Credit: Getty

The UEFA Champions League exudes drama. It is unpredictable and exciting. Plus, it produces storylines that can be as short as a span of minutes or stretch across the entire season.

Clubs from across Europe could go on miracle runs. For example, Ajax in 2019 reached the semifinals, knocking off Real Madrid and Juventus in the process. The same exists for Monaco in 2016/17. Then, the ultimate underdog success story, Jose Mourinho’s Porto won the UEFA Champions League in the 2003/04 season.

Theoretically speaking, any team in the competition has a shot at winning. Even just this season, Sheriff Tiraspol, the first Moldovan side to even play in the UEFA Champions League, beat the 13-time champions Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

No one would dispute the fact that Real Madrid is currently and always has been superior to Sheriff. However, for that one night, lowly Sheriff Tiraspol outlasted Los Blancos.

The thing about the Champions League and its underdog stories is that there are a number of similarities to American Sports.

I will cede that passion and drama are perhaps more prominent and consistent in the Champions League. However, at its core, the UEFA Champions League is nothing more than a playoff among the best teams from last season’s ‘regular season,’ or just domestic league play.

Too often do fans of soccer harangue American sports because of their association with money or the lack of importance of the regular season. However, there are certain similarities between things like the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, MLB or various college sports and European soccer.

Oftentimes, people do not enjoy the major sports in the United States. Yet, for people who turn their back on American sports for the following reasons, they do not differ much from Europe’s biggest competition.

Prejudices

I find that many soccer fans in the United States are not interested in American sports. That is not to say all American soccer fans. For example, I love soccer. Played it growing up and watch as much as I can now. That being said, I also have a passion for American sports teams. If you are curious, those are the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Rays and my alma mater Florida Gators.

As a sport, soccer differs greatly from those. Soccer is fluid, does not have the seemingly incessant commercial breaks in the middle of games and caters to different people with different skills.

This piece is not to change people’s opinions on what sports they enjoy. Watch what you enjoy, simple as that.

Rather, below are similarities between two entities that some people often try to separate. For better or for worse, the UEFA Champions League is no more than the postseason for Europe’s elite.

Which shows more success, league play or the Champions League?

Also, I think it is important to make clear that I, personally, find league success more impressive than continental success. Additionally, I find league success more impressive because it is not wildly unpredictable or dramatic. And, yes, these are the same reasons I love the Champions League, it is beautiful because we struggle to predict what will happen.

Understandably, those who say the Champions League shows more success cite the fact that a club like PSG can beat up on minnows like Troyes or FC Lorient. PSG won seven of the last nine Ligue 1 titles, but they cannot thrive on the European stage. Then the same applies to all of Europe’s biggest leagues. Therefore, people who prioritize Champions League success likely would have found the European Super League to be more enjoyable, pitting major clubs against each other each week.

Thankfully, that did not come to fruition.

Instead, if we look at a club like Manchester City, which is on track to win its fourth EPL title in five seasons, there is true dominance. A Champions League celebration still eludes the Etihad Stadium, but the run of titles from the Citizens is impressive. This is especially true considering that two of the UEFA Champions League winning teams in those years finished behind City in the league. Liverpool finished second in the 2018/19 Premier League, despite winning the Champions League. Then, just two years later, Chelsea won the Champions League, despite struggling to a fourth-placed finish domestically.

There is merit to both arguments, it is what makes European soccer great. Yet, the tournament-style Champions League allows for more parity, which is exciting. It resembles American sports, which is not a bad thing as many would like to claim.

Similarities between American sports and European soccer via playoffs

Qualification

The main difference between European soccer and American sports is what happens at the end of the ‘season’. In soccer, the team that finishes top of the league is the champion. Meanwhile, the team (or teams) that finish at the top get some kind of advantage for the playoffs.

Lower leagues often have a playoff system that determines promotion or relegation, rather than a true title of the country.

The best way to draw a comparison between European soccer and American sports is through using the Champions League as ‘playoffs’ for Europe. At that rate, the comparisons become apparent.

Each domestic league serves as a division. Let’s take something like the NFL for example. There are eight divisions in the NFL divided out of two conferences. The winners of each division get into the NFL playoffs, with the next three-best teams from each conference also qualifying.

In both competitions, the regular season’s sole purpose is to get to the next phase.

Due to the size of European soccer, there are more opportunities to qualify. Of course, that is not relatively speaking. Part of the thrill of the Champions League is the fact that only the best in each league have the opportunity to compete in the continental cup. Each team in one year’s Champions League can look back on the previous season’s domestic effort with pride.

In the NFL, almost half of the possible teams qualify. Of the 32 NFL teams, 14 reach the playoffs.

Parity in champions

There is a benefit to having this many teams in the event that most American fans look forward to. In MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA play, there are varieties of champions that emerge as ‘world champions.’

The tournament-style competitions allows for upsets, especially considering that the NFL is single-game knockout. The NBA, NHL and MLB have series ranging from three to seven games, eliminating some of that parity.

The two-legged nature of the Champions League knockout stage is something of a series itself. Even then, a three-goal comeback is not something that is impossible. For reference, just ask FC Barcelona how it went in consecutive seasons against Roma and Liverpool.

Say what you will about the Champions League not demonstrating which club is the best overall, the ability for a ‘small’ club to pull off results against the usual suspects is thrilling.

Is it truly the best way to say who is the ‘best team in Europe’? Probably not. Yet, frankly, there is not a better way to go about it that allows every European club to be in the conversation.

We discussed parity in the sport with LAFC’s Dave Denholm and Kartik Krishnaiyer. Parity can grow the game, which is something that American sports leagues are always trying to do, especially Major League Soccer.

However, for something as pre-established and dominant as European soccer, the season-long competition makes more sense.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Tony

    March 7, 2022 at 11:00 am

    Biggest load of nonsense I have read in a long time !

  2. JP

    February 23, 2022 at 6:57 pm

    The biggest similarities in the structure of European soccer and American sports is with NCAA basketball

    Conferences = Domestic Leagues
    Conference tournaments = League Cups
    NCAA tournament = UCL
    NIT = EL

    Do well in the regular season of conference play and almost assured of qualifying for the tournament (top 4 finish etc of domestic league)

    Have a poor season but can still quality for the tournament with a conference tournament win (via automatic berth to NCAA tournament). Similar to how winning the League Cup qualifies the club for EL even if they finish below the spots usually required. Bit different in which tournament it applies for, but gist is the same.

    There’s also the phenomenon of rooting for league rivals in the tournament if your team didn’t make it or was eliminated earlier, taking pride in your conference doing well. See this with UCL as well.

    • dave

      February 28, 2022 at 10:47 pm

      Interesting thesis. I agree with @JP that NCAA basketball is probably the closest analog to the combination of European domestic leagues, domestic cups, and UCL/UEL.
      .
      Do you have data for “I find that many soccer fans in the United States are not interested in American sports” or is that anecdotal?
      .
      I missed the MLS parity video when it first came out. Enjoyable discussion. Agree with the theme that a sports season needs something to keep fans of many teams engaged towards the finale – parity, pro/rel, jostling for playoff seeds, etc.

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