It is well documented that my love for the Premier League and Fantasy Premier League began in 2006 when, as a lifelong lover of the World Cup, I had the spark of a thought to look into England’s professional football league. What has held me here for the last 12+ years is everything that makes the Premier League different from the American sports leagues I grew up with.
There are no salary caps. There is promotion and relegation. And there are no playoffs.
This week, the Major League Soccer playoffs began here in the United States. My hatred for playoffs in general is already well documented on this blog, but it resurfaced again this week when the “knockout round” began. It’s for that reason why I just have to take a shot at MLS this week.
Why Playoffs Don’t Work
Playoffs are nothing more than a naked cash grab for television. It provides a guarantee that the final game played, and aired on TV, will decide a champion. That is, by definition, what playoffs do.
Shouldn’t a champion, however, be the best team in the league over the course of the entire season? With playoffs, that is not the case. With playoffs, the champion is the best team at the end of the season.
Major League Baseball just concluded its season, and it got lucky. The best team in the league — the Boston Red Sox — won the World Series. The best team was the champion. It shouldn’t have required a playoff to decide that, though. 162 games in the regular season did that already.
All the World Series did was create an opportunity for the Red Sox to fail.
Thousands of baseball games were played during the regular season. I literally did not sit down to watch one of them. I did what all of you should do. I waited until the playoffs, until the games that actually matter toward deciding a champion.
I get that you have to get into the playoffs by being good enough during the regular season, but that drama is minimal compared to the playoff itself. Besides, if your team isn’t good enough to make the playoffs anyway, they aren’t much fun to watch. Because of that, I wait until the games that matter.
By contrast, there’s a reason why I’m watching Premier League soccer now during the fall months when the season lasts until May. Without a playoff, every match matters. Seriously, I’ll bet that the Tottenham-Man City match from this past weekend, played in late October, will help us determine this season’s champion.
That match may have been devastating for Spurs. We will find out in five months, but can you believe that matches played five months out from the end of the season might have that kind of significance? What other league can claim that?
Why Playoffs Don’t Work for MLS
Full disclaimer: I don’t like MLS. I don’t watch it, not even during the playoffs. I can’t bring myself to do it, not when there is plenty of European football I can watch instead. Call me a soccer snob if you want, but part of the reason is the structure.
European football has a season that matters because there is no playoff. Brilliantly, however, European football fans still get their playoff fixes met through the cup competitions and the Champions and Europa Leagues. It’s the best of both worlds. Knockout tournaments that provide separate trophies from the league seasons? Genius!
Every American sports league — especially our soccer league — should copy it.
Instead, we have the MLS playoffs. MLS — the sad American soccer league that is trying to fit in more with its fellow American sports leagues than its soccer counterparts around the world.
Of the 23 clubs in MLS, 12 make the playoffs. Yup, all those matches that were played until this week only served to narrow down the field by about 45%. What a waste of time.
Then the knockout round happened. After 34 barely meaningful matches were played, the lucky eight clubs who had to play in this round saw the meaning of their entire seasons whittled down to one game.
Last night on Fox Sports 1, during halftime of the DC United-Columbus knockout round game, the announcers laughably said that the regular season is given more meaning when the playoffs are reduced to one single game in each round because of home-field advantage. The problem with that is in the results. Three of the four knockout games were won by the road team (including the game that those announcers were calling).
The reality is that the New York Red Bulls were the best team in the MLS regular season. Anything other than the title for that club would be wrong. Beyond that, though, it is wrong for them to have to prove it a second time in an end-of-season tournament. They already proved over 34 games, which is a much larger and more reliable sample size than any playoff ever could be.
I already avoid MLS. Any pull I might normally feel toward any sports league once the playoffs begin is lost on me with this league. No thanks. I’m fine with my weekend Premier League viewing. May the perfectly symmetrical, season-long drama of the Premier League last beyond my lifetime and my children’s lifetimes.
And may my one wish come true — that American sports leagues come to adopt this structure, too.