Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Logic of a Single Table for MLS: Garber Doesn't Get It

By El Chupacabra

If you saw the interview with MLS Commissioner Don Garber on Fox Soccer Fone-In on Monday, you saw him respond to a question about implementing a Single Table for the MLS (listen to it here). His response was, and I paraphrase, that he doesn't "get it." His argument is that a single table would make games at the end of the season meaningless.

Said Garber (and I quote): "The Columbus Crew would have won 10 days before the end of the season. They would have been celebrating the championship at a game where they lost.

“I understand the heritage and tradition that people enjoy with a single table. But somebody would have to explain to me how that would be better than what we have now, because I’m not getting it."

Garber's logic is flawed in a few key ways. First and foremost, a single table does not preclude a playoff system. The FIFA tournaments and the UEFA Champions League use a group system and then a knock-out round. One could argue that the current MLS arrangement with two conferences and then a play-off is similar. However, the MLS playoff system as it currently stands takes the top two teams from each group (conference) and then the next four best teams regardless of group (conference). This arrangment essentially amounts to letting the top eight teams in a single table into a knock-out round, which the International House of Soccer calls the MLS Cup. What's worse, the MLS system lets in half of the teams in the league. This year, Real Salt Lake had more losses than wins and amassed a mere 40 pts over the course of the season. The average number of points earned in the league this year was 40.4.

El Chupa agrees that the games at the end of the season should have meaning. But this desire needs to be balanced with the logic of sport--and the logic of logic.

If the purpose of any competition is to determine who is the best team, then clearly the team that does the best over time is the best team. Period. The MLS system allows teams which are clearly inferior a shot at knocking off a better team in a short series. Anything can and will happen in a short home and away series. Rubin Kazan just "won" a home and away series over Barcelona. Yesterday in the frigid cold of Kazan's Central Stadium, Rubin kept six defenders back and essentially played for the draw, stifling Barca's vaunted offensive machine who all looked like they were literally freezing their asses off. Is Rubin a better team than Barca? Hardly. Barca will still most likely make it out of their group along with Inter, and the Russian Premier League champions will end up in the UEFA Europa competition. This is as it should be, as the group stage gives teams the chance to recover from upsets, thus insuring that only the very best teams make it through to the knock-out round

Now, don't El Chupa wrong, he loves it when an underdog sticks it to a better team. It makes for great sport. But such drama doesn't belong in a knock-out round where the true underdogs have no place. In a sound system, the inferior teams will have been eliminated. But in the MLS playoff system, teams that are not even AVERAGE get a shot at being a spoiler, as they aren't eliminated in the "group stage" (regular season).

Garber also spoke of American "sporting traditions and heritage." Um, by this does he mean he wants the International House of Soccer to follow in the footsteps of the NBA and the NHL, where bad teams get rewarded with a playoff spot for monetary reasons only? The NBA system is a joke. But even in the NBA, the first round is seven games, which make it a legitimate test. If the MLS had a three-game knockout round, it would be one thing. But the current system, which doesn't weight away goals like the UEFA competitions, doesn't do justice to the logic of a sport which demands its own distinct and reasonable means of determining not just the winner of individual competitions, but the best team over the course of several competitions.

Yes, some times the best team doesn't win. And that's what makes sport exciting. But the International House of Soccer is clearly going for entertainment value over competitive legitimacy.

We love the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, where Cinderella teams routinely make runs into the Sweet Sixteen--but generally no further and RARELY into the final four. And we certainly think it's the case that truly great teams need to step it up in high pressure situations. But there have to be limits. And we think the current MLS system is unbalanced in favor of sports-O-tainment and of the business of sport. We like salary caps and revenue sharing. We think the European leagues are unbalanced and less interesting than American leagues like the MLS and the NFL where smaller-market teams actually have a chance of being champion. But the fact is: Garber just doesn't get it.

The solution? A single table with a revamped playoff system that reduces the number of teams which make it to the knock-out stage with the compensation of participation in international competitions based on ranking in the single table. Major League Soccer Rumors offers a very interesting possibility here, and it's one El Chupa endorses. Researching this article has resulted in a dismaying number of douche-bags in the blogo-sphere, including Brian Strauss and Paul Pabst, who also don't get it, and who clearly are coming from a rather provincial perspective that bristles rather xenophobically at the infatuation American soccer fans have with the European leagues. To Pabst's credit, he misses only the obvious point that a single table doesn't preclude a playoff system nor is Pabst anti-European. Strauss is just, well, a douche.

If you can track down Garber's email (I failed), send him a note reminding him that as long as MLS continues to cater to American sports fans rather than American soccer fans, the MLS will remain the joke it is in the world of International Pancakes--er, I mean football.

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