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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.

Thanks, but no thanks: Sampaoli turns down vacant Argentina job

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JUNE 18:  Head coach Jorge Sampaoli of Chile looks on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Spain and Chile at Maracana on June 18, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli says he has turned down an offer to manage the Argentina national team.

Sampaoli tells Sevilla’s website “I had a call from the president of the (Argentine football) federation, but it would be irresponsible for me to leave Sevilla.”

Sampaoli was hired by Sevilla last month to replace new Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery.

The Argentine-born Sampaoli led Chile to its first Copa America title in 2015.

Argentina has been without a coach since Gerardo Martino stepped down earlier this month after losing a second consecutive Copa America final.

Preseason roundup: Chelsea fall to Real Madrid; Man United win big

ANN ARBOR, MI - JULY 30:  Willian #22 of Chelsea defends against Marcelo Vieira Da Silva #12 of Real Madrid during the first half at Michigan Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s preseason action involving Premier League sides, including the 2016 International Champions Cup…

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Real Madrid 3-2 Chelsea

Marcelo scored twice in the opening 26 minutes at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., as Real Madrid picked up their first ICC victory of the preseason. It was 3-0 before halftime after Mariano Mejia beat no. 2 goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, who started the game and gave way to Thibaut Courtois at halftime, in the 37th minute.

Eden Hazard only pulled back the Blues’ consolation goals in the 80th and 90th minutes, meaning first-year manager Antonio Conte will have plenty of areas to target for improvement as the next 14 days roll by and Chelsea kick off their 2016-17 Premier League campaign Monday, Aug. 13, at home against West Ham United.

Manchester United 5-2 Galatasaray

The Zlatan Ibrahimovic era has officially begun at Manchester United after the most delightful of starts on Saturday. Ibrahimovic scored an acrobatic opening goal just four minutes into his Red Devils debut (watch at the link below), Wayne Rooney scored twice in the rout of Galatasaray, and Marcus Rashford showed once the kind of game-changing ability realized in his breakout 2015-16 season.

[ MORE: Zlatan scored a ridiculous scissor-kick goal on his debut ]

After entering the game at halftime, the 18-year-old was instantly the most dangerous player on the field, running at defenders at every opportunity and singlehandedly winning the penalty that resulted in Rooney’s second goal. Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata scored the fourth and fifth goals, respectively.

Elsewhere in preseason action

Liverpool vs. AC Milan (10 p.m. ET)
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Leicester City (11:30 p.m. ET)
Real Betis 1-1 Everton
FC Gronigen 0-1 Southampton
Bournemouth 1-0 Cardiff
Rangers 1-3 Burnley
Nottingham Forest 1-2 Hull City
Aston Villa 1-3 Middlesbrough
Wolves 0-4 Swansea City
Fulham 3-1 Crystal Palace
Queens Park Rangers 2-0 Watford
Montpellier 1-1 Sunderland
Plymouth 0-0 West Bromwich Albion

After 2015 World Cup success, Australian women stood for better wages — and won

MONCTON, NB - JUNE 21:  Australia celebrates the 1-0 win over Brazil during the FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 round of 16 match between Brazil and Australia at Moncton Stadium on June 21, 2015 in Moncton, Canada.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Long before the U.S. women’s soccer team filed a federal complaint over wage discrimination, the Australian women fought for better pay.

And won.

The Matildas, as they are known, will be among the 12 women’s soccer teams playing in Brazil next week when the Olympics get underway. Their strike following a successful run in last summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada was significant as female athletes across sports fight for recognition and respect – including their American counterparts.

“In terms of being trailblazers, I’m not really sure. I think we just sort of went about it how we thought was necessary,” Australian defender Steph Catley said. “We felt we deserved more.”

The Matildas have made a quick ascent as one of the world’s elite teams. They gained national attention last year when they became the first team from Australia – male or female – to win a World Cup knockout round match by upsetting Brazil 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals.

The United States went on to win the World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan in the final.

Afterward, the U.S. women scheduled a pair of exhibition matches against Australia as part of a victory tour. But the Australian federation withdrew from those matches after the Matildas walked out of training camp and the players’ union said contract talks with the national federation had stalled.

The Matildas, whose contract had expired, said they had not been paid for two months heading into the walkout.

The salary for a national team player was equivalent to $14,475, based on a six-month playing period. That meant many of the players needed to have other jobs to make ends meet. Some players worked two club seasons, one at home in Australia and the other in the United States with the National Women’s Soccer League, meaning they played year-round.

The players were asking for a salary increase to $28,000 a year, as well as other benefits including improved accommodations and bonuses for international matches. The demands were part of larger bargaining that included the men’s national team and A-League players, and the Football Federation Australia at one point claimed the Matildas were being used as a pawn in the negotiations.

But there was a groundswell of support for the women, who have seen their popularity rise in Australia along with the team’s stature on the national stage.

American stars Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd, former player Julie Foudy and Canadian forward Christine Sinclair were among those who expressed support for the Australians. There were change.org petitions to support the team.

“The Matildas are courageously fighting for what is right. (hashtag) priclessrolemodels,” Lloyd posted to Twitter.

The deal that was eventually struck in November included a pay structure that puts the salaries for top players at $30,700 per year and those at the next level at $22,400. The contract calls for a 10 percent raise each year and improved bonuses and other benefits.

“Our elite female players deserve a full-time professional career path in football and this agreement represents a solid foundation we can build on,” players’ association chief executive Adam Vivian said at the time.

Striker Kyah Simon said the move made the team stronger.

“The Matildas’ story is standing up for what we believe in and standing up for our brand and our culture. I think at the end of the day it brought the team closer together,” Simon said. “It’s something we can look on with pride, and something that’s hopefully a positive future for our sport and for the new generation of players.”

The victory came well before a group of U.S. women’s national team players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. The women claim they make far less on average than their male national team counterparts. The complaint in late March came as the players seek a new collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer.

Heading into the Olympics, the Matildas are ranked No. 5 in the world.

They leapfrogged Japan and Korea in the AFC qualification tournament to earn the trip to Rio along with China – scoring 17 goals in five matches.

Australia is in a tough group in Brazil that includes No. 2 Germany, No. 10 Canada and Zimbabwe. It is the only group with three teams ranked in the top 10. The top-ranked Americans play in a group that includes No. 3 France, New Zealand and Colombia.

Australia opens the tournament on Wednesday against Canada in Sao Paulo.

“After the World Cup everything sort of started to change. When we came home there was so much media attention and so many people that were interested in what we were doing and really proud of the success we had,” Catley said of the team’s rising profile. “I think people always knew there was a national team, but I don’t think they realized how high in the rankings we were and how much better we were getting as a team.”

Conte: “I don’t know” if Diego Costa will be a Chelsea player this season

VELDEN, AUSTRIA - JULY 20: Diego Costa of Chelsea looks on during the friendly match between WAC RZ Pellets and Chelsea F.C. at Worthersee Stadion on July 20, 2016 in Velden, Austria. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte sent “silly season” into overdrive (all over again) when he admitted on Saturday that he himself doesn’t know whether or not Diego Costa will remain a Chelsea player this season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking after his side’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the International Champions Cup, Chelsea’s first-year manager confirmed the reason for Costa’s continued absence this preseason — an injury — but went on to say the Brazilian-turned-Spaniard’s club future remains up in the air just 14 days before the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off — quotes from the Sun:

“I can say that today Costa is a Chelsea player. He didn’t play in these games because of injury and if he solves the injury and I see in training he’s in good shape it can be possible to see him in the next game against Milan. But I can tell only this.

“I speak for today and today Costa is Chelsea’s player. Tomorrow if you ask me if Costa will remain with us, I don’t know.”

Costa, who signed for Chelsea from Atletico Madrid two summers ago, has regularly been linked with a return to the Spanish capital. However, Atleti announced on Saturday the signing of Sevilla striker Kevin Gameiro, who scored 68 goals in three seasons (all competitions) with the three-time defending Europa League winners, reportedly for nearly $40 million.

[ MORE: Zlatan scored a ridiculous scissor-kick goal on his debut ]

Atleti would hardly be the only suitors for a goal-getter who has netted 32 times in two seasons in the Premier League, including 20 times in 26 games during his 2014-15 debut campaign.