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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.

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.

U.S. U-20 midfield star leaves FC Dallas for a role with Schalke

schalke04.de/en
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Another Yank youngster has landed in Germany.

Weston McKinnie, 18, has starred for the United States U-20 team as well as FC Dallas’ Academy, and has been in demand.

[ MORE: Americans Abroad news ]

The club is Schalke, a Bundesliga outfit which has had an exceptional offseason. McKinnie joins the U-19 side, and is billed by Schalke as a midfielder who “can be deployed as part of a two-man central midfield or in the number 10 role.”

From Schalkeo4.de/en:

“He’s a player who convinced us with his robustness and game awareness,” said academy director Oliver Ruhnert. “In the US he is one of the best footballers for his age. He is also a youth national team player and has also captained his team. He brings a lot of qualities with him, especially to the mental side of his game. We are therefore convinced that Weston is capable of becoming a professional footballer. The transfer therefore makes a lot of sense.”

McKinnie, if you haven’t read his name before, is absolutely one to remember. The Schalke man joins a club with a good track record for Americans. Chad Deering, Thomas Dooley, and David Wagner have also represented the United States for the Miners.

WATCH and LISTEN: Our Deadline Day show, and the 2 Robbies talk transfers

Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe, The 2 Robbies
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Deadline Day was kinda nuts, am I right?

There’s a lot to digest, and we’ve covered a lot of it in this space.

But in case you need more — and who doesn’t want a bit more Premier League? — we’ve got a stream of Wednesday’s TV show covering the deadline, and the 2 Robbies talking transfers.

LISTEN: The 2 Robbies Transfer Deadline Day podcast

REWATCH: Wednesday’s Deadline Day show

Now onto the business of the Premier League’s nascent season. Who was boosted by today’s moves? Who took a hit?

Report: USWNT legend Heather O’Reilly set to retire from soccer

BIRMINGHAM, AL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Heather O'Reilly #9 of the United States of America reacts after scoring a goal against Haiti during the US Women's 2015 World Cup victory tour match at Legion Field on September 20, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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She has the seventh-most caps and the sixth-most assists in United States women’s national team history, and she’s also calling it a day.

Excelle Sports is reporting that Heather O’Reilly is retiring at the age of 31. The FC Kansas City player will likely play her final match in September, as the 2015 champs have all-but been eliminated from the playoffs.

[ MORE: Five big Deadline Day signings ]

O’Reilly had 230 caps, 46 goals, and 54 assists for the USWNT team. She’s one of only a few players to have more than 45 goals and 50 assists (Julie Foudy, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan, Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly).

One of many successful products of Anson Dorrance’s UNC program, “HAO” spent her club career with New Jersey Wildcats, Sky Blue FC, and Boston Breakers before joining FCKC.

O’Reilly was left off the Olympic roster this summer, named as an alternate. She could’ve been useful — of course hindsight is 20/20 — and it’ll be odd watching more USWNT matches without HAO.

International roundup: Schweinsteiger, Keane say goodbye; Denmark bags five

Germany's national team throws their captain Bastian Schweinsteiger into the air after he played his last match for the national team in Moenchengladbach, Germany, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Germany won the friendly soccer match against Finland with 2-0. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Two mainstays of the international game are done with that part of their career following shutout wins on Wednesday, just two of several friendlies early in this international break.

[ MORE: Five big Deadline Day signings ]

Germany 2-0 Finland

Max Meyer picked up from his remarkable Olympics by firing home, and Mesut Ozil also scored for the Germans in a match that was not about the winner. Bastian Schweinsteiger called it a day on his international career in the win, his 121st cap. The Manchester United man finishes his career with 24 goals, a World Cup title and a EURO runner-up finish. Not too shabby.

Ireland 4-0 Oman

ROI all-time leading scorer Robbie Keane fittingly ended his tenure as an international player with yet another goal, bringing his career tally to 68 goals in 146 caps. Stoke City’s Jon Walters scored twice for the Boys in Green, and Robbie Brady (Norwich) also netted in the win.

Denmark 5-0 Liechtenstein

It took the hosts a half-hour to break down the visitors, but a pair from Feyenoord striker Nicolai Jorgensen opened the floodgates and Andreas Cornelius, Viktor Fischer and Jens Stryger Larsen finished the scoring in a blowout at the CASA Arena in Horsens. It was Larsen’s first cap.

Elsewhere
Turkey 0-0 Russia
Albania 0-0 Morocco
Estonia 1-1 Malta
Norway 0-1 Belarus
Lebanon 1-1 Jordan