Compared to most other leagues, particularly those in Europe, Major League Soccer is different. It has a playoff system, no promotion or relegation and has more teams than almost all leagues in the world.
This brings about a number of circumstances. Each team does not play one another during the season, and there is arguably less pressure on coaches. If they get into the playoffs, anything can happen. Moreover, with MLS announcing its playoff structure just days before the 2023 season, there will be 18 teams out of 29 in the league in the playoffs, meaning that 62% of the teams qualify. After making it into the playoffs, one great game or poor game can knock out the team that was by far the best in the 34-game regular season. That essentially happened to New England Revolution in 2021 when the fourth-seed NYCFC won on penalties after a historic season from New England.
If the Premier League was to adopt similar characteristics to MLS, that would entail changes. Perhaps teams would rest players when the fixture list jams up. Of greater importance, there is minimal incentive to finish in the top four, one of the most memorable times of a number of Premier League campaigns in the past.
Finally, there is no relegation. Some of the coaches sacked this season, for example — and there are a lot of them — would likely still be in the same job.
What the MLS experience would look like in the Premier League
Playoffs vs. League title
Starting at the top of the table, the end-of-season rewards in the Premier League would change entirely. MLS does provide something for the regular season champion of the league. The Supporters’ Shield does come with the benefit of qualification to the CONCACAF Champions League.
The top three teams based on regular season record used to qualify for the Champions League. The fourth spot came from the winner of MLS Cup, or runner-up if the winner already had a spot. The Supporters’ Shield winner, by extension, had a spot. That all changed when CONCACAF formally expanded its Champions League format starting with the 2024 season.
On that regard, it is not dissimilar from the current UEFA qualification in the Premier League. In England, Germany, Spain and Italy, the top four teams from the league campaign qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League.
In this hypothetical, however, the main issue comes from the title. There is debate over what is more impressive to win, a tournament or a league season. A tournament, such as the Champions League or, in this case, the MLS Cup Playoffs, requires strong form for a stretch of games against top opposition. Winning a league can have its ebbs and flows over months and months. However, it makes the performances of Arsenal this season or Manchester City in seasons prior more impressive.
There is no telling what team would win a hypothetical playoff at the end of the Premier League season. Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United would be the top teams to take on. However, Liverpool and Chelsea, despite shocking form this season, have the talent on the field to compete with those two three teams. Who knows, even clubs such as Brighton or Aston Villa could go on a hot streak and win the whole thing.
Similarly, Brentford or Fulham could find form at the right time and go on to win the “Premier League Cup.”
Does it make the end of the season more exciting? Similarly, does it make the August through May season less meaningful?
It is different systems, and each has benefits.
Relegation and pressure
The other end of the table, though, is significantly different. The argument in favor of or against promotion and relegation can be had. Fans want it for more drama and to get the home-town feel from small teams breaking barriers. Owners do not want it because they are investing millions into teams. They do not want to see those teams playing in the second tier after one bad season.
However, if this lack of promotion and relegation came to the Premier League, would there be any interest in the bottom half of the table? One of the most compelling stories this season is the fact that there are seven teams separated by just a handful of points at the bottom of the table. Leeds and Everton have bounced back and forth. West Ham and Wolves are two teams that are surprisingly down that far in the table after top-10 finishes a season ago.
If the Premier League was a closed system like MLS, these teams would meander along into the close of the season, maybe play spoiler to a team above them, and pick it up next season with no consequence.
As a result, coaches would be less under the microscope. Five of these bottom six teams sacked their manager in the middle of the season. Southampton has been in the relegation zone for so long, that they did it twice. If there is no threat of relegation, managers may have more time to implement their ideas and strategies. Jesse Marsch may still be at Leeds, Bruno Lage could remain at Wolves where he had success in his lone full season.
Instead, the actual Premier League demands results early and often. The financial threat of relegation is something that makes the entire table significant, not just the race for the top 62% like MLS.
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