How well did Major League Soccer’s format work in 2013? Few qualms with this year’s results

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One of the themes of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber’s Tuesday State of the League address was competitiveness. The league, he said, wanted to be the most competitive in the world. What exactly that means, we’ll wait for another time to nail down, but the Commissioner did point out that five teams finished within six points of the league’s regular season title. From MLS’s point of view, it’s a pretty safe assumption parity is a highly desired quality when assessing competitiveness.

In a league like that, playoffs are almost obligatory, with a 34-game regular season unlikely to be enough to distinguish squads being pulled toward the mean. But given most of the world persists without crowning champions through postseasons, it’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer’s system worked. After a regular season and three rounds of playoffs, has the competition format done a good job of identifying the two teams that should be competing for this year’s title?

That is, after all, what this is all about, right? Sure, you need to play enough games to pay for the whole thing, but ultimately a league needs to have a credible competition. It needs to have a format where the best teams are rewarded; else, it becomes pretty difficult for people to buy into your league.

It’s one thing to have a number of teams capable of competing for a title, or even have the occasional shock winner. It’s something entirely different to be perceived as a place where champions might as well be drawn out of a hat, with too many teams having a shot-in-the-dark chance of claiming a championship.

MLS seemed to be approaching that in 2009 and 2010, when two Western Conference teams played their way through the East before claiming MLS Cup. The league’s subsequent tweaks have helped with that perception. There’s no more conference crossover. Now, the top five teams from each conference make the postseason, never mind that a sixth place team might be better than a higher finisher from the other conference. The schedule, an equitable double round robin, is now unbalanced, so teams play more games within their conference. Instead of MLS Cup final at a predetermined site, the finalist with the best regular season point total hosts the game.

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Matt Besler, seen here on international duty with the United States, missed 11 game this year for a Sporting Kansas City team that fell one point short of the Supporters’ Shield. (Photo: Getty Images.)

Having a playoff system means you don’t need to answer those questions. Teams just need to make the playoffs, and although the whole thing kind of goes awry when a low-finishing hot hand blazes through the postseason (rendering the bulk of the season meaningless), everything looks great when you get to the end and two proven contenders are fighting for the league title.

In that respect, this year’s competition format worked. The best teams not only qualified for the playoffs but they didn’t cruise through the regular season. At year’s end, two teams firmly ensconced in the “who’s the best team” debate are competing for the final. What more could you ask for?

Perhaps a better way of settling home field advantage for MLS Cup? With an unbalanced regular season schedule, awarding home field to the highest point getter is only truly fair when the quality conferences are balanced. Right now, they’re not. In time the East may improve, but right now, there’s little question the West is the stronger conference, and because Real Salt Lake played more games against that tougher circuit, they finished two points short of Sporting Kansas City. The Eastern Conference champions aren’t hosting Saturday’s game because they were the better team through the end of October. They’re hosting because MLS gave them an easier schedule.

The most-obvious solution is to alternate which conference hosts MLS Cup finals. Recognizing that the unbalanced schedule is both beneficial (in terms of travel, building rivalries, and the other reasons why MLS implemented it in the first place) and makes it impossible to meaningfully compare the records of teams from different conferences, the league should simply switch off. In even-numbered years, one conference hosts the game. In odd number years, it goes the other way. MLS would avoid the problems for the previous format (potentially having a neutral’s atmosphere when fans are such an important selling point for the league) while avoiding the issue introduced by the unbalanced regular season schedule.

Think about how well this would have worked in 2011 and 2012. Instead of two games in Los Angeles between the Galaxy and Dynamo, we would have had one in Carson, the other in Houston. While you could argue the Dynamo didn’t deserve to host either of those games, Los Angeles didn’t exactly plow through the regular season in 2012. If they would have travelled to BBVA Compass last year, few would have complained.

But as far as 2013 is concerned, the qualms about home field and MLS Cup are a relatively minor concerns – the type of wrinkle you’d expect from an 18-year-old league still playing trial-and-error with its rules. If we’re worried about whether home field is decided in a fair way come the season’s last game, we should probably move away from the current system. Otherwise, 2013’s been a pretty good once for MLS’s competition format.

Brighton 2-2 Stoke: Seagulls remain ninth thanks to Izquierdo’s equalizer

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Three Premier League newcomers remain in close contention with one another after 12 weeks, one of which picked up another positive result today.

[ MORE: Congested PL schedule challenges the big boys ]

Brighton & Hove Albion earned a 2-2 draw against Stoke City at the Amex Stadium on Monday after Jose Izquierdo’s persistence gave the home side the leveler in the 60th minute from Glenn Murray‘s clever pass inside the box.

The result made for Brighton’s sixth consecutive match unbeaten at home this season.

A back-and-forth first half saw the on-loan Chelsea defender give Stoke the lead heading into the halftime break after a disappointing spell of defending by Brighton allowed Zouma to finish of a corner kick.

Pascal Gross gave Brighton an equalizer one minute from halftime after Davy Propper had done superbly to create space for himself down the right wing.

The visitors struck in the 28th minute after Shaqiri delivered a perfect long ball into the path of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting.

The Cameroonian proceeded to control the pass beautifully from his Stoke teammate, before tucking his shot from close range into the near corner past Brighton goalkeeper Maty Ryan.

Brighton thought they had the chance to level the score prior to the equalizer when the hosts appeared to have a penalty appeal after Murray went down inside the Stoke area. However, referee Lee Mason opted against spot kick.

The two sides will both be in action on Saturday when Brighton travels to Old Trafford to face Manchester United and Stoke takes on Crystal Palace.

At the half: Zouma’s header has Stoke in front against Brighton

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It’s been a wild one thus far at the Amex Stadium, and we’ve still got 45 minutes left to play.

Stoke City holds a 2-1 advantage against newcomer Brighton & Hove Albion after Kurt Zouma gave the visitors the lead on the stroke of halftime.

[ MORE: West Brom fires manager Tony Pulis ]

Zouma headed home close range in first-half stoppage time to restore the Potters’ advantage, after Pascal Gross had equalized in the 44th minute for Brighton.

Stoke opened the scoring just prior to the half hour mark when Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting finished off a stellar move that originated from a Xherdan Shaqiri long ball over the Brighton back line.

Brighton were fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men after Glenn Murray went in late on a challenge against Stoke defender Kevin Wimmer.

Murray thought he had won himself a penalty kick minutes prior, but referee Lee Mason decided to continue play.

Miguel Almiron named MLS Newcomer of the Year

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Unsurprisingly, one of Atlanta United’s biggest stars took home some hardware on Monday after a stellar first season in Major League Soccer.

[ MORE: Previewing the MLS conference finals ]

Atlanta attacker Miguel Almiron was named MLS Newcomer of the Year today, beating out Chicago Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic and teammate Josef Martinez for the honor.

Almiron, who joined Atlanta from Argentine side Lanus, netted nine goals and added 14 assists for the Eastern Conference squad in 2017 and helped guide the club to the MLS Cup Playoffs after finishing fifth in the East.

The 23-year-old received an 37.38% average of the vote for the award, which was compiled based on votes from a combination of media members, MLS players and executives. Nikolic finished second with 24.92 percent, while Martinez checked in at number three.

Watch Live: Brighton and Hove Albion vs. Stoke City

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Chris Hughton looks to lead his Brighton and Hove Albion to a fifth-straight result as the Gulls welcome Stoke City to the Amex Stadium on Monday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

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The Gulls have won two and drawn two, powered by goals from Glenn Murray and the playmaking of Pascal Gross.

Stoke’s 3-4-1-2 has Ramadan Sobhi, Eric Choupo-Moting, and Xherdan Shaqiri attacking the final third.

LINEUPS

Brighton and Hove Albion: Ryan, Bruno, Dunk, Duffy, Bong, Stephens, Propper, Knockaert, Izquierdo, Gross, Murray. Subs: Krul, Hemed, Goldson, Schelotto, Suttner, Brown.

Stoke City: Grant; Zouma, Shawcross, Wimmer; Diouf, Fletcher, Allen, Pieters; Shaqiri, Ramadan; Choupo-Moting. Subs: Haugaard; Berahino, Jese, Afellay, Martins Indi, Adam, Crouch.