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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.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs Manchester United (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02:  Louis van Gaal of Manchester United waves to the crowd before the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on February 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Louis Van Gaal takes on the squad his potential successor built as Manchester United travels to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea, live on NBCSN at 11:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Should they fall, the Red Devils would be stuck on 40 points, their lowest-ever point total at this point in any Premier League season.

[ WATCH LIVE: Chelsea vs Manchester United live online at NBC Sports Live Extra ]

Nothing is new on the injury front for either team. Chelsea’s striker problem remains as Loic Remy, Pedro, and Radamel Falcao are all out, leaving young Bertrand Traore on the bench backing up Diego Costa. For Manchester United, Marcos Rojo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw are all out injured and not available for some time.

Chelsea will be looking to maintain a nine-match unbeaten streak alive against Manchester United across all competitions, having won five and drawn four against the Red Devils in that span.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Ivanovic, Zouma, Terry, Azpi; Mikel, Matic; Willian, Fabregas, Oscar; Diego Costa.
Subs: Begovic, Baba Rahman, Cahill, Loftus-Cheek, Pedro, Traore, Hazard.

Manchester United: De Gea; Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Borthwick-Jackson; Fellaini, Carrick; Lingard, Mata, Martial; Rooney.
Subs: 
Romero, McNair, Varela, Schneiderlin, Herrera, Pereira, Memphis

Pato eager to make his mark with Chelsea

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Brazilian attacker Alexandre Pato has joined Chelsea on loan until the end of the season and the former AC Milan star is looking to make his mark in Europe once again.

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In an exclusive partnership with Chelsea Football Club, NBCSports.com provides even more access to life at Stamford Bridge.

Sign up to the Chelsea Fan Club Plus now to read the full edition of this month’s Chelsea magazine. Members also gain access to Chelsea TV featuring behind-the-scenes action from the Chelsea training ground and exclusive interviews with Guus Hiddink and his players.

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Below is the feature article on Pato from Chelsea’s magazine.


The chances are you will have known Pato’s name long before he signed for the Blues. After all, he was a teenage sensation for club and country, impressing in Serie A with

AC Milan and joining the long line of thrilling forwards to have graced the Brazilian national team.

There is also a chance that, until his arrival here, you hadn’t heard his name too much lately. That’s because Pato has been back in his homeland, playing for Corinthians and Sao Paulo, before making his return to Europe with a loan deal at Stamford Bridge until the end of this season.

Still only 26, he is visibly excited about the move and the prospect of playing Premier League football, and as we sit down to talk to him during his first week at Chelsea, his famous boyish grin is pretty much a permanent fixture.

“I am very eager to play,” he says enthusiastically. “I am eager to train with my team-mates and to incorporate myself into the group here. I know it’s a fight against time because there is not so long until the end of the season, but I am very keen to get started.

“The first few days have been very important. To be back in Europe again at a big club like Chelsea is a dream come true. I’m very happy to be here because I have worked very hard for the last three years in Brazil.”

He arrives with the team looking to push itself back to the more familiar upper echelons of the league table and with crunch FA Cup and Champions League fixtures against top opposition fast approaching. In short, it’s an exciting period and Pato knows he will have to hit the ground running.

“The season is not over,” he states. “There is a lot to play for and a lot of things Chelsea can achieve. This sequence of better results we are having now is just the beginning of something the team can continue to build on. Since I arrived I have been made to feel very welcome, not just by the Brazilian players but everyone. The coach met me here at Cobham and introduced me to all the staff from all the different departments. He has given me the support to have a great rest of the season at Chelsea.”

Pato is a versatile and mobile player. He is always on the lookout for gaps to exploit, holes in the defence or a swift change of direction which might open up the pitch. A great many of his goals involve a sudden burst from deep, his acceleration taking him away from defenders.

Then there is the footwork in tight spaces, the body swerves and the tricks that allow him to slalom in and out of players. The Brazilian domestic season finished in early December but Pato has been keeping himself fit in preparation for a possible move during the January transfer window, and believes he just needs to get himself up to speed.

“I feel very good physically,” he tells us. “Obviously as a player you need game-time to be at your best but I feel prepared, I have been training well, and hopefully with games and time I can adapt.
“I know I only have a few months until the end of the season but what I can promise is that I am prepared to play to the best of my ability to help during the few months left of the campaign.”

Alexandre Pato, Sao Paulo FC
Alexandre Pato at Sao Paulo FC

He adds that, after injuries hampered his last two seasons with Milan, he has changed a few thingscand learned “what to do before training, during training, after training, even after the match.

“I learned a lot about myself and how to look after myself, and now Chelsea have opened the doors to me for this opportunity I am very happy to be back in Europe.”

As for English football, Patois well aware of the different challenges the Premier League is likely to present to him, but more than anything he is excited to test himself here. He has experience of
playing English clubs in European competition and pre-season friendly tournaments, and in the dressing room here he has plenty of friends who have been filling him in on the intricacies.

“I already knew Willian, OscarKenedy and Diego Costa,” he says. “There are some players I know from friendship and others I have once played against. It’s a big thing that they can help me settle down at Chelsea. They will help me express myself with freedom and to be incorporated into the team. The players all helped me to settle in my first few days.

“I know how hard the Premier League is. Diego, Willian and the boys have been telling me that it is very hard here, but I feel I have to improvise so I can find the space on the pitch, get my timing right and get myself into spaces. I have heard a lot about the Premier League and I also had the chance to play against English opposition when I was at AC Milan. For example, I played against Chelsea in a friendly match in the USA. It’s a different league – very hard, very physical, with a lot of contact, and hopefully with my pace and ability I will be able to help the team. I’m hoping to contribute a lot and have a great time here.”

Bournemouth 0-2 Arsenal: Ozil, Ox strike quick for Gunners win

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07:  Mesut Oezil of Arsenal celebrates as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between A.F.C. Bournemouth and Arsenal at the Vitality Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hit goals just 88 seconds apart, enough to knock Bournemouth off its feat and give Arsenal a 2-0 win at Vitality Stadium.

The Cherries seemed up to the task, challenging Arsenal in every facet of the game except finishing, where the Gunners proved far superior.

The first big moment of the game came in the middle of the pitch eight minutes in. Mathieu Flamini slid through the feet of Dan Gosling on a challenge just into the Arsenal defensive half, a foul which referee Kevin Friend deemed fit for a yellow card, although it certainly looked dangerous enough for worse.

As the two battled ferociously back and forth, there were thumping challenges that kept the quality of the game down early. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. On 23 minutes, Aaron Ramsey floated a pinpoint ball to the back post. It met the head of Olivier Grioud who sent it back in front of net where Ozil roofed it on the volley, breaking a streak of 328 minutes without a league goal for Arsenal.

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The Gunners continue to charge forward, and they bagged another just a minute later. Ramsey again outside the top of the box found Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain streaking down the right, and the England international beat Charlie Daniels at full speed, firing low to the far post where it struck the woodwork and pinged in for a 2-0 lead. The goal is Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first ever league goal away from home, ending a streak of 37 Premier League games for the 22-year-old without scoring.

Bournemouth wouldn’t capitulate immediately. Harry Arter struck a powerful left-footed shot from the left corner of the penalty area on 27 minutes, but Petr Cech matched it by acrobatically tipping the weaving shot over the bar.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

That was all the major action for the first half, but the second half started with a flurry of moments around each goal. Ozil sent in a cross for Ramsey just three minutes after the break that sailed just over the Welshman’s head, and down the other end Matt Richie skied one just over the Gunners’ goal.

Bournemouth brought on Junior Stanislas and Josh King, and they maintained an attacking intent throughout much of the second half, but it wasn’t enough to break down the Gunners defense that was comfortable absorbing pressure as the game went on. Every time the hosts moved into a dangerous position, the ball would end up miles over the bar.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The Cherries had one last opportunity to get on the board early in added time as a brilliant chance fell to Steve Cook right on the penalty spot but Petr Cech made an outstanding save down to his left before also keeping out the rebound.

Arsenal’s win moves the Gunners into third position, even with Tottenham on 28 points, which puts them five back of the leaders Leicester City. Bournemouth remains six points above the relegation zone, and also sit that distance off the top half of the table.

Barcelona tops Levante, ties club record with 28 unbeaten

VALENCIA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 07:  Jordi Alba of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his teammate Andres Iniesta during the La Liga match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia on February 07, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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Sir Alex Ferguson described the 2010/11 Barcelona team as the best team he ever faced.

This year’s Barcelona side has matched them.

With a 2-0 victory over La Liga basement-dwellers Levante on an own-goal forced by Jordi Alba plus a late score from Luis Suarez, Barcelona has gone 28 matches unbeaten in all competitions, without a loss since a 2-1 defeat to Sevilla on October 28.

Manager Luis Enrique, though, is unmoved. “What matters to me are the team’s objectives,” said Enrique after the win. “These are nice numbers, if they help us win titles at the end of the season, fantastic. We are in good position, but there is still a lot left.”

The Levante victory marked Luis Enrique’s 100th game in charge of Barcelona.

That 2010/11 season, led by Pep Guardiola, Barcelona came a Copa del Rey finals loss to Real Madrid from a quadruple, winning the league, Champions League, and Supercopa de Espana. This time around, they’ve already secured the Supercopa, sit atop the league table by three points over Atletico Madrid and seven above Real Madrid, have yet to lose a game in the Champions League, and the second leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal against Valencia is a complete formality. What’s more, the numbers from this streak are eerily similar to that wildly successful squad five years ago.

That campaign, Lionel Messi scored 31 league goals and 53 overall. An injury sapped him of time in this go around, but Suarez and Neymar have picked up the slack. There has been just one league game in which all three of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez has been held scoreless this season, and to find it you have to travel all the way back to the second game of the year, a 1-0 win over Malaga that saw Thomas Vermaelen score the winner. Those three have combined for 48 league goals this year, more than every team in the Spanish top flight save Real Madrid.

Paris Saint-Germain has a similar streak going at the moment, currently unbeaten in league play throughout the entire season, but their 1-0 loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League on November 3 means their streak across all competitions sits at 19 games.