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

8 Comments

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.

source: Getty Images
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.

Southampton pleased to nab “bonus point” vs. Spurs

Leave a comment

Ryan Bertrand had a fine day for Southampton in its 1-1 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, forcing Spurs into an own goal and picking up a point for its relegation battle.

[ RECAP: Saints 1-1 Spurs ]

Saints now sit a point back of safety after Stoke City leapt over them with a Saturday win, and Bertrand says the club will be buoyed by a Sunday bonus.

“Very heavy, the rain didn’t help, just pleased to come away with the point,” Bertrand said. “We have to scrap it out. We have to analyze, look at our remaining fixtures, which games you want to win and which games we’ll be slightly be the underdogs and today was a bonus point on our journey.”

Saints host Watford in the FA Cup on Saturday before welcoming Brighton on Jan. 31 for a massive midweek six-pointer (It’s the appropriate time of year to consider matches six-pointers, yes?).

Spurs, Saints play to stalemate

Leave a comment
  • Bertrand forces Spurs own goal
  • Kane levels before halftime
  • Spurs stay fifth
  • Saints one point back of safety

Harry Kane made amends for a Davinson Sanchez own goal as Tottenham Hotspur drew Southampton 1-1 at St. Mary’s on Sunday.

Southampton is now winless in 11 Premier League matches, while Spurs are unbeaten in six.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Spurs entered the game with Christian Eriksen and Hugo Lloris out through sickness and several more not at 100 percent, and Sanchez was surely feeling ill when his sliding attempt to block a Ryan Bertrand cross beat his own keeper to the inside post.

It was 1-1 within moments, as Kane rose over Manolo Gabbiadini after losing mark Jack Stephens on a corner kick.

James Ward-Prowse was fortunate to avoid a card when he kicked out at Jan Vertonghen following a slide tackle from the Spurs center back.

Stephens just missed making up for his error when he zipped onto Ward-Prowse’s free kick but headed just wide of the far upper 90.

Mario Lemina forced Vorm into a save after a 41st minute set-up by Gabbiadini.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Ward-Prowse tried his luck from 25 yards to start the second half, but Vorm saw the ball the whole way into his arms.

Spurs grew into the second half, and Dele Alli lashed wide of the near post in the 65th minute. Vertonghen buzzed the tower with a left-footed shot five minutes later.

Would anything give as the match progressed, with Spurs inserting Erik Lamela and Saints opting for Sofiane Boufal and 17-year-old debutant Michael Obafemi?

Good work from Kane and Sissoko ended with an on-the-doorstep Lamela shooting off a Saints defender and out, poorly adjudged to be a goal kick.

Obafemi misjudged a chance to redirect a cross past Vorm in the 87th minute, and Cedric ventured a laser wide of the goal as Saints looked for a winner. Boufal was then blocked by Sanchez after taking a touch too much in the box.

Kane had late opportunity for Spurs, but dragged his shot or pass through the six without a receiver.

VIDEO: Ronaldo bloodied after diving header goal in Real rout

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Leave a comment

This hasn’t been a good league year for Cristiano Ronaldo nor his club Real Madrid, and the reigning league winners let their frustrations out on Deportivo de la Coruna on Sunday.

[ MORE: 2 Robbies on Alexis-Mkhi ]

Ronaldo scored twice in the 7-1 rout, and the second saw his face bloodied by a boot when he went low to head home in the second half for Real’s sixth goal.

Fortunately for Ronaldo, he’s the sort of player who doesn’t care about his looks. Hilariously, cameras caught the mega star using a cell phone to assess the damage.

The goals end a three-match league dry spell for the Ballon d’Or collector, who has 17 goals in 25 matches across all competitions this season.

Real is 16 points back of Barcelona in La Liga, on pace to finish fourth in the division.

Judging the Premier League’s in-season managerial changes

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Stoke City, Swansea City, and now Watford have all made managerial changes in the last month, and await the long-term response of their players to new bosses Paul Lambert (so far, so good), Carlos Carvalhal (mixed, but a win), and probably Javi Gracia, respectively.

That means 40 percent of Premier League clubs have ditched their Opening Day bosses this season. Some were overdue, others were debatable, and the latest — Watford’s sacking of Marco Silva after denying Everton’s pursuit of the boss — is a real head scratcher.

[ MORE: Watford fires Silva, blames Everton ]

How have the moves worked so far?

Crystal Palace
Frank De Boer — 0W-4L
Roy Hodgson — 6W-7D-7L

Hodgson is actually on pace to outdo Sam Allardyce‘s 8W-2D-11L campaign to save Palace’s 2016-17 season. FDB’s short-lived campaign is difficult to judge, his lone win coming in the League Cup against Championship competition, but there’s little debate as to whether Hodgson’s discipline has worked at Selhurst Park.

Everton
Ronald Koeman — 2W-2D-5L
David Unsworth (caretaker) — 2W-2D-1L
Sam Allardyce — 3W-4D-3L

Everton’s entire season has been the same tale: beat the lower half clubs but fail to meet expectations against almost anyone of merit. That’s taken a dive in recent weeks, as Allardyce has drawn West Brom twice and lost at Bournemouth. Jury’s out, and Allardyce has a lot to prove as another team brings him in and spends dough on his behalf.

Leicester City
Craig Shakespeare — 1W-3D-4L
Michael Appleton (caretaker) — 1W
Claude Puel — 7W-4D-4L

It’s now two-straight seasons of poor starts dooming the Leicester City manager, and Shakespeare understandably did not get patience considering the Foxes fired the architect of their stored PL run in Claudio Ranieri (who has Nantes fifth place in Ligue 1). Puel got a rough ride from expectation-heavy Saints fans, who’d probably love to have him back right now. This is an unqualified success, and Leicester may just make it back to Europe.

Swansea City
Paul Clement — 3W-3D-12L
Leon Britton (player manager) — 1D-1L
Carlos Carvalhal — 1W-1D-1L

It’s hard to gauge whether Carvalhal was the right hire, but Swans’ record has improved in the five matches since he was fired and the lone losses are to Liverpool and Spurs. The firing, it seems, was the right call.

West Brom
Tony Pulis — 2W-4D-6L
Gary Megson (caretaker) — 2D
Alan Pardew — 1W-4D-4L

The wins still need to come, but West Brom do look a more promising side and Alan Pardew’s desire to play two strikers certainly makes for better entertainment than Tony Pulis’ unit. Like Everton, the jury is still out. If we had to judge, we’d say it’s the right move for a fan base which prefers a more fashionable style of play (but also prefers being in the Premier League).

West Ham
Slaven Bilic — 2W-3D-6L
David Moyes — 4W-4D-4L

So far, Moyes is doing wonders for his reputation while performing feats that Everton is still seeking from Allardyce; West Ham has spent some money, and Moyes is getting performances out of Marko Arnautovic and using his width well (Arthur Masuaku has been impressive at full back).