The debate between the so-dubiously-called “Euro-snobs” and the more “nationalistic” American soccer fans has created a clash of philosophies about the sport. Should we become more like Europe and adopt the Old World system of the game completely, or should we build our own version within the framework of the IFAB-approved rule set? The funny thing about this conflict is that it has existed since the first foray by America into the realm of a professional soccer league.
The era of professional soccer in America did not kick off with the North American Soccer League in 1968, as might be commonly believed. In actuality, there existed two precursors to the NASL — the United Soccer Association, and the National Professional Soccer League, both founded in 1966 and playing their only seasons in 1967. These two leagues eventually merged after their one and only seasons to form the NASL in 1968. For time’s sake, you can read about all three of these leagues by visiting the linked wiki entries above.
What set these leagues apart from the rest of the world’s leagues were the rules they adopted. In order to successfully appeal to a country without solid soccer lineage, America’s first leagues offered modified rules in some capacity or another to the following facets of the game: a countdown clock like other timed American sports; an offside line at 35 yards instead of half field; shootouts to avoid draws; a year-end playoff format to decide the league champion; and a league-wide draft for college players. Many of these rules have arguably been used as reasons for the demise of the USA, NPSL, and NASL; rightly or wrongly so.
When MLS was erected in 1993 ahead of the US-hosted 1994 World Cup, administrators of the newly-formed league took a couple of odd steps in their infancy. While the creation of a single-entity structure (a la the franchise systems of other American sports) was put into place to guard against some of the financial situations that festered throughout the old NASL days, the League opted for many of the yester-year rule modifications. Among the resurrected changes were the countdown clock, the shootout, playoffs, and the college draft. On top of the three normal substitutions that IFAB allows, MLS teams were also awarded a “goalkeeper-only” substitution.
Why MLS chose to go this route immediately from inception I have no clue. Maybe it was to “bridge the gap” between the old and new. Indeed, most of these rules were phased out by the 2000 season (the fifth year of existence), with the progressive clock replacing the countdown clock as well as the shootout being abolished after the 1999 season. A “golden goal” extra time period was used in the interim until 2005 when MLS adopted complete IFAB rules. The goalkeeper-only sub was relinquished after 2003.
While the NASL and its predecessors used these modified rules to appeal directly to an American public that both needed a rule set that was in the context of their other sports but also to present a very new and unfamiliar game to the populous at large, MLS needed none of these. By 1993, the US and Canada were well on their way to nursing the fledgling soccer players in their youth programs who had been playing nearly all their lives. Both countries’ national teams were developing into quality sides (with arguably much room to improve), and US stood poised to welcome the entire soccer world into their lives the following year at United States 1994. This was not the same market as before. We were infinitely interested in this game; we were well-informed of the rules the world played by; and we welcomed it with open arms.
It’s my belief that which way the clock counted, or not ending games in tied scores would’ve ended one way or another. I cannot see how the early administration logically thought these modified rules would last more than five years in a market that had spent the last decade or more adopting the beauty of the game from the rest of the world. Whatever reason MLS chose to kick off with these alternative rules, it matters not. MLS is an IFAB-following league in 2012; and has been since 2005.
But two hold-outs of this American soccer tradition remain: playoffs and the college draft. While how we handle both topics are critical to the success of the league, my focus here will be on the former. How the college draft should fit into MLS will be a topic for a future article.
The former of these hold-outs may be the biggest difference between American soccer and most of the rest of the world, especially today. It is not a rule, per se, but a format for competition. Its effect is not only how the league champion is awarded, but what aspect of the game is deserving of the most emphasis: the 30-some odd games that constitute a “season”, or a year-end playoffs that constitute a “champion”.
Playoffs are apart of every American sport. In fact, I would go so far as to say that (to Americans) it’s the crux of the entire competition for an entire season. While fans attend individual regular season games, and while those regular season games provide the overwhelming bulk of games played during the course of the year, no American sports fan would disagree that the “real” competition starts in the post-season. Seemingly defying logic, people will argue that it doesn’t matter what happens in those first 16, 34, 84, or 146 games… it’s what happens in the last one, two, or four games.
From this rationale, we’ve forged the mentality of “Playoff Hockey”, “The Big Game”, “March Madness”, best-of-seven series, do-or-die matches, and an incessant desire to format any other non-sport competition into some sort of knock-out game. And rightly so. No sports fan in any country can deny the energy of two powerhouses colliding with only one of them moving on to inch ever-closer to a title. If you disagree, you apparently don’t follow your region’s champion’s league tournament… or watch the Olympics or the World Cup. Indeed, look at the closing day kerfuffle in the English Premier League last year which saw Manchester City win with two last minute goals and clinch their first title in 44 years while simultaneously Manchester United fans watched in horror as their championship hopes were dashed to bits. This is the playoff excitement that Americans crave.
This is undoubtedly a paradox. If a regular season decides who enters the race to become champion, then isn’t the regular season just as important as the playoffs? Chicken, meet Egg. But, nay!, says the American sports fan! Those countless games that we attend every year (sometimes all of them) are meaningless once the post-season starts. We worry about what’s directly in front of us, and right now it’s the playoffs!
Now, to be fair, MLS is not the only soccer league to have a playoff format to decide a league champion. Mexico’s Liga MX has had its la liguilla since 1970, Australia’s A-League has its Finals Series, and even Argentina’s Primera Division has a pseudo-playoff between its Inicial and Final winners to contest the league title.
Additionally, I believe it’d be difficult to argue against playoffs being a key component of the sport in general. In fact, I would argue that playoffs (by another name) has always been integral to the sport of soccer, and this is especially true since the international game first kicked off.
I say this because the very format of every regional and global competition for the last 80-odd years has been the knockout style tournament. Every soccer fan knows the basic concept of a tournament. Briefly, it requires a pool of teams to play a round-robin series with the winner (and maybe the runner-up) to move on from the pool to the next round. Whether this is done in groups of 3, 4, 6, or more teams; whether this is a home-and-home format; whether this is a quick semi-final/final or quarters/semi/final progression… the truth is that a tournament equates to playoffs. The crux of both of these terms is that the duration of the competition is played over a relatively short amount of time (usually a month or two) with a very high probability of teams being eliminated relatively early. The knockout style is key to the clinical nature of the event because it produces winner’s in a very short amount of time.
Every single confederation under FIFA uses some type of tournament to decide both club and national titles. And the pinnacle of soccer trophies, the World Cup (and all its preliminary qualifying rounds), is played this way. Could you imagine if these tournaments were played in a format other than knockout-style? That all 200+ countries (and all of its subsequent clubs) played in a season of home-and-home matches that essentially echoed how many other leagues around the world determine their champions? That is, a “single table” model with even games between teams and the winner at the end takes home the crown. This is a preposterous idea, and to say that soccer should be played in this way regardless of what kind of competition is being played or what part of the world it is played in is just as asinine as Sepp Blatter saying that no league should have more than 16 or 18 teams. It’s a blanket statement, and it leaves many places, people, and events in its margins.
From this, I reach the conclusion that knockout-style competition (whether it’s called a tournament or a playoff) is part of the world game on virtually every level. This is not an American-originated idea, nor is it unique to the American sports scene. Thus I maintain that the American appeal of the knockout-style format and the emphasis that is placed on it is all the better in our neck of the world. It not only has a crucial presence in our history of the sport, but adds much excitement to the end result of the game.
So, the aforementioned battle American soccer fans fight is this: which aspect of the year-long campaign do we place the most emphasis?
Because playoffs force us to award a champion that is not necessarily the same as the winner of the regular season, it can be (and, in fact, it is) extremely easy to overlook one in lieu of the other. The common debate amongst MLS fans now is how much clout the Supporter’s Shield (regular season champion) winner holds over the MLS Cup (playoff champion) winner. One side contends that a playoff is the best way of ensuring the best clubs have a shot at winning a championship while allowing for a certain amount of “Cinderella-ness” for a bottom seed to steal the title. The other side argues that playoffs highlight only teams that peak at the right time, namely during playoffs, and that consistency over the course of a season is a better gauge of which team is the best. They point to Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids in the 2009 and 2010 seasons as examples of this (both were bottom seeds that barely sneaked into the playoffs.
This debate has been re-ignited in 2012 with the return of an unbalanced schedule. And certain personalities like Jason Kreis have made comments detracting from the importance of winning the Supporter’s Shield.
Currently, both MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield winners have a common incentive: a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League. This competition, especially in the last two years, has garnered more support among MLS clubs. It seems as though everyone is gunning to knock off the perennial favorite Mexican sides for a chance to play in the FIFA Club World Cup. Some analysts propose giving even more incentive to the Supporter’s Shield winner. But regardless of which side you argue for, the basic problem is that lack of emphasis on each aspect of the game. Each deserves attention, but for very different reasons.
Consistency over the long-haul needs to be rewarded. But there is no doubt that the excitement from the playoffs is great for business and for fans that enjoy do-or-die situations. Is there room for both of these to have equal standing in the world of MLS, and if so how do we go about doing it?
Before we get to how playoffs and the regular season should be formatted (which will be the subject of Part 5: The General Plan), there is one last thing about American soccer that differs from much of the world that I have yet to touch on.
The timing of the season.
While this may not seem like a big to-do to the casual follower or layman, the placement of the MLS season (ie, when it begins, when it ends, and how long it takes to play) has been a thorn in the side of many people over the years. Many commentators and administrators have been vocal about the subject, especially recently, and are not short for words to lay out their argument. Last fall, FIFA president (and blabber mouth) Sepp Blatter called for MLS to adopt the “FIFA schedule” of August through May. This past January at the annual NSCAA conference in Kansas City, out-spoken pundit and former US National Team star Eric Wynalda gave a very vehement speech regarding the state of MLS as he sees it. Not the least of his points was aligning the schedule according to FIFA. And finally, as of February of 2012, USSF has altered its US Youth Development Program season to follow a 10-month schedule between September and June, which starts for the 2012-2013 season.
The key reasons for suggesting a change in season is a matter of synchronizing the league calendar with major events in the regional and world calendars. The two notable events to speak about are the World Cup (held during the month of June), and the CONCACAF Champions League (kicking off in early August with the group rounds, and concluding with the knockout stages in March after a break). And, to a lesser extent, the various events of the international calendar for the national teams usually kicks off during August as well, as is witnessed by the US Men’s National Team World Cup qualifiers taking place now.
Currently, MLS follows a March through October schedule with three rounds of playoffs in November and the MLS Cup Final the first week of December. But, despite what many of the higher-ups suggest, not all of the world leagues follow the FIFA alignment. The chart below shows the same leagues we’ve looked at in the past two articles. While most of them do follow the FIFA recommendation, some (including Japan and Brazil) do not.* All data is referenced to respective 2012 or 2012/2013 seasons.
It’s true that countries like Brazil and Australia follow an adjusted season based on the fact that our summer is their winter (southern hemisphere and all…), but it’s key to note that Argentina (another southern hemisphere country) follows a slightly modified FIFA schedule of early August thru late June. The Japanese J League plays a similar season to MLS (March to December), and the Australian A-League (which has only 10 teams and 135 total league games per season) plays an October thru March schedule.
One other thing to note from the data above: the extreme disparity in the figures of number of match days per season and the number of total games played per season between the various leagues and MLS. Only Liga MX has as many match days per season as MLS, while MLS has one of the shorter seasons in terms of weeks played of any of the top leagues.
These two things suggest to me a few things. One, that the complaints from many around MLS about “traveling woes” and “congested schedules” (which, among many places, can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here) may either be misguided and/or unfounded when compared to what the rest of the world faces.
Two, that perhaps the length of the MLS season is too short considering that most other leagues play a month or month and a half longer. CCL competitions started almost a full month before MLS regular season games did in 2012, and there may be room for adjusting the schedule accordingly.
Finally, the figures for total match days per season is a glaring window into what I think is one of the biggest issues regarding the scheduling of MLS games. This is two-fold. Firstly, I believe it shows that MLS is still looking to find the least-competitive match days in which to schedule games as to not go directly head-to-head with other American sports leagues like the NFL (which typically plays on Sundays, Mondays, and now Thursdays).
Additionally, it reveals that the MLS season rarely has a full slate of games on any given day (where all, or darn near all, teams are playing on a single day). This is in contrast to leagues like the EPL, Serie A, and especially La Liga and the Bundesliga, all of which play, on average, over six games per match day. Japan, highest number of games per match day of all those listed above, comes in at 7.5. The average games per match day is 5.0. Compare all this to MLS’ hapless figure of 3.3. Only two other leagues in the above list have a lower volume of games: Liga MX at 3.2, and the A-League at 1.7. (If you’re curious, you can find out any of these figures yourself by dividing the total number of games by number of match days). Congestion in the schedule may need to be looked at differently now.
What sort of conclusion can we draw from all of this in regards to the placement of the MLS season in the calendar year? When you put it in perspective of the last two articles in this series (Logistics and Market Saturation), it seems to me that one of the biggest detriments to the MLS schedule is the sheer amount of time spent on travel that is necessary to compose an entire season. Not all clubs can be within an hour or two flight (or drive) from everyone else in the league. Traversing those great divides wears on players in ways that can’t be fully measured. Jet lag, the uncomfortable feeling of being on a commercial airline (chartered flights are conditionally restricted in MLS), trying to mentally prepare after a 1,000 mile trip, and then the return trip to do it all over again. American sports are the worst in this regard. But I find it hard to believe that the rigors of travel need to be this intense.
Additionally, the conflicts with international competition (ie, World Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, etc) essentially means that MLS is putting their international players in a position to have to choose between club and country more often than in other leagues. Usually a player chooses his country, but at the expense of his club. Until the depth of talent in the league is such that international call-ups have virtually no effect on teams missing key players, the fact will remain that the league compromises its purpose during international competition.
In the same vein, the staging of the CCL season sets up US and Canadian teams to fail based on the fact that the teams qualifying for the next rendition of the tournament are decided a full nine months before that tournament is set to take place. For example, should the San Jose Earthquakes win the Supporter’s Shield in 2012 (thus securing a spot in the 2013/2014 CONCACAF Champions League), they would play virtually two thirds of the next MLS season before entering the international event. Nine months is a long time in soccer. It’s literally a season depending on where you place it within a year. Asking the best teams in the league to try to hold a roster together not only through an off-season, but through the majority of the next season and still perform at the top of their game for CCL is insanity. Contracts can and do expire. Performance dips. New travel woes are dealt with. And other foreign clubs in the tournament are geared for a fresh start to a season instead of being in the mindset of winding down a campaign with a final push for a title or playoff run.
As more and more MLS squads begin to take Champions League seriously, changes need to happen to accommodate these events. Dually for the World Cup. It’s not a far reach to suspect that the MLS schedule affected the final decision for FIFA to not award the 2018 or 2022 World Cups to the United States. Even if this wasn’t the case, there’s no reason to doubt that it couldn’t be used against the country in the future.
Eric Wynalda made some very good points during his NSCAA speech about why MLS should adopt the international calendar. The same arguments against a schedule change can always be made: freezing weather in the wintery northern cities; competing against other American sports like football; and even aligning it to the NCAA soccer season for draft purposes. But these don’t really refute the advantages of making the change.
Moreover, all the status quo arguments can be countered with like-minded antitheses: 100+ temps and intense humidity in the southern cities during the summer; competing against the entirety of the MLB season, the NBA and NHL Finals when MLS is just getting started, and the bulk of the NFL season when MLS is climaxing to its Final; and the use of an off-tilt, non-IFAB-playing organization like the NCAA men’s soccer league.
Changes can be made, regardless of the opposing arguments and the nay-sayers. Indeed, they must be made if MLS ever wants to position itself to steal a piece of the soccer pie (so to speak) from the top leagues of the world. If what Don Garber says about wanting to be among the best leagues in the world from a quality perspective, then affording MLS players the same advantages of the predominantly European leagues in relation to the international calendar is paramount to bringing that quality up to its expectation. In addition to that, the effect that travel and excessive match days have on the schedule, player health, and player performance needs to be better accounted for. Adjusting the schedule to consider all of these things (and still retaining the American-ness of the playoff system) will provide those advantages and resolve those issues.
How this all plays into the other issues I’ve raised (searching out more markets and filling out the US and Canada with quality clubs; fixing the problems of immense geographical distances) will all be brought to a head in Part 5: The General Plan.