Trong Nhan Doan dissects David Villa’s recent statements claiming that European football could do with adopting MLS’ playoff system.
This Sunday, David Villa, the once gifted striker and a regular nightmare for every goalkeeper, needs to find his blast from the past to help his team overcomes a two-goal deficit against Toronto FC in the MLS Eastern Conference Semifinals second leg match. Going to his second year of his stint in New York, it seems like the La Roja record goalscorer is enjoying the last years of an impressive career.
“Right now, after the final of the season, 12 teams have a chance at winning the trophy,” Villa told MLSsoccer.com before the first game against Toronto. “This is very exciting for every team, for the country, for the people, for people who love soccer. I like it.”
“I like this format. Europe can copy this format. Sometimes in Europe, in some leagues like the Spanish league or the Italian league, the last 10 games are very boring for winning the trophy because there are only two teams. Sometimes one team has the best chance of winning,” Villa said.
Is David Villa right? Should European football copy the format of the MLS? Should we have playoff games at the end of regular season to determine the winner of the competition?
The answer is, unfortunately for Villa, no.
First and foremost, Villa must have forgotten that he is playing in the United States, where everything about sports is driven by the desire for generating revenue. Sports in the United States work in a logical sequence: the more people watch the game, the more advertisements the network receive, the more incomes are generated. Nowhere in the world can television channels make such an impact on the sports here, since it is well-known to see the league organizer amending rules to increase the rating and please the unpredictable audience.
Therefore, it doesn’t necessary mean that what works in the United States can work everywhere else in the world (and in fact, most of them can’t). Trading rules, drafting rules, league collective bargaining agreement only works on a sports tournament where revenue are split among teams and where the audience considers sporting events as an entertainment rather than a hobby. Playoff, postseason, whatever the way we call it, falls in the same category.
Second, let us remind you that the total area of 5 million miles square of the United States. This is as nearly as big as entire Europe. Flights from the West Coast to New York can take nearly 6 hours, nearly twice as much as travel time from London to Moscow. The infamous story of how Dennis Bergkamp became the non-flying Dutchman signifies how big this country is.
To accommodate with travel logistics, teams are divided into different divisions and conferences, where they play with an unbalanced scheduling. In NBA and NHL, teams play divisional rivals, conference opponents, and non-conference teams four, three and two times respectively. In MLS, teams play 24 matches with conference teams and 10 inter-conference matches. Such unbalanced scheduling creates ranking mishaps. Teams might have a tougher schedule than their opponents or enjoy a more comfortable fixture vice versa. Therefore, a playoff is needed to determine the strongest team of the competition.
Meanwhile, in most domestic competition in Europe (most because Liechtenstein doesn’t have a league trophy) teams play pure league competition. Every team has 2 meetings with their opponents, one at home, one on the road. The team who accumulate most points deservedly wins the title. Teams with the fewest points are relegated. Everything is fair and square.
It is true that some European league competition organizes playoffs or shootout segment of the competition. For example, English League Football organizes the promotion playoff to determine the final promotion spot. Eredivisie has the European competition play-offs. Scottish Premier League divides their league into two sections at the end of two-third of the competition. Belgium Pro League also has the playoff segment, with a more complex format.
One common thing for all mentioned leagues above is they don’t make any impact on the chase of the championship. The English League Football creates play-off to encourage teams playing competitively in the final matches, should the two automatic promotion spots are decided. More importantly, TV’s revenue from the playoff matches is nearly as the same as the entire league stages, which blurs the financial gap between the three relegated teams from the Premier League and the rest of the league. The phrase “$120 million game” for the playoff final describes the monetary value of the playoff tournament.
Meanwhile, Eredivisie, Scottish Premier League, and Belgium Pro League do separate top teams to compete for the championship. However, the key point is the leader’s points and records are kept heading to the playoff segment. There won’t be any outcry should the leader have fought so hard to be the first one to cross the finish line at the end of regular season, only to lose the championship due to an off-night in the playoff game.
More importantly, in MLS, only the championship matters. No relegation battle, no battle for the continental tournament, it is checkered-or-wrecker. Meanwhile, during his European days with Valencia, Villa definitely used to fight hard until the final day of the season, although the championship has long been a two-horse race between Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Champions League, Europa League spot or even the Survival Sunday keeps fans turning on the television until the final weekend, even if the running away victor of the competition has long been announced.
Even in MLS, Villa and his teammates still have the incentive to play hard until the final whistle of the regular season is blown. Home-field advantage, Supporter’s Shield, a bye to the conference semi-final round, everything is still on the grab to the final day. His remark of the last ten matches being “boring”, therefore, is foolish.