By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 14, 2012) US Soccer Players — Maybe I’m alone in this, but my response to the final day of the 2011-12 Premier League was that playoffs are still the way to go. Part of that was probably because I spent the better part of the afternoon watching playoff games in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League’s version the day before. Honestly, Manchester City’s almost collapse really didn’t sway my opinion.
This is more than simply being contrary. There’s this ideal that circulates through soccer that there’s one best way. As the thinking goes, even if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny each and every season, it’s still better than the artificial tension that’s part of a playoff system. You might have noticed I’m building a straw man here, and the first thing I’m going after is the concept that playoffs are artificial. They’re not.
Everyone knows going into a league that uses playoffs that the only thing that really counts is making it through those playoffs. Supporters’ Shields (Major League Soccer), the President’s Trophy (NHL) and the pennant (Major League Baseball) are all fine accomplishments in their own right, but they’re not the title. If you want to be crowned champion – the real one that gets to lift the shiny trophy – being the best regular season club isn’t enough.
It’s that last point that’s worth stressing. Playoff leagues congratulate the team that rolls through the regular season, and then requires them and everyone else that qualifies for the playoffs to do it all over again. The grind of every regular season is set aside for a new challenge, more games, and a higher level of competition.
There are still final days every bit as dramatic as what happened in the Premier League on Sunday. Teams trying to make the playoffs against teams trying to improve their seeding in the playoffs. Teams trying to spoil a rival’s season by knocking them out of playoff contention. In 2011, MLS went overboard in hyping the final weeks of a season that was more about math than reasonable scenarios, but the point was a fair one. The buildup to who makes it and who doesn’t is every bit as intriguing as who ends up among the three teams with the worst record in the Premier League. It’s the same kind of drop, missing out on the most lucrative stage of the major North American sports.
Several of those sports have their own version of late season intrigue, with the worst clubs in the league trying to see who finishes last and has the better odds at winning the top lottery pick in the next draft. That might not be the marquee for sporting excellence that professional sports aspire too, but it’s another style of competition with its own hazards. A team that justifies a wreck of a season for a draft pick that ends up going to another team has a lot of explaining to do. That’s as much a sporting and financial risk as anything we see in the Premier League. Allowing teams to rebuild at topflight level might be unknown in Europe, but again that doesn’t make it a bad idea.
What gets lost in the enthusiasm over the European – and specifically the English – way of doing things is that this is a system that has only recently considered controls. European soccer’s governing body finds the current free spending system untenable. Manchester City and a lot of their fellow elite clubs aren’t reigning in their spending in response.
Our new Premier League champions are part of a group of clubs that spend whatever they want now. Things may change under Financial Fair Play, but right now the game can be won by making sure you’re not competing at a financial disadvantage. Some of the North American leagues make that impossible with a hard salary cap, others make it exceedingly expensive with a luxury tax. The result of both methods is intended to be the same, limiting what clubs spend so the competition is fairer.
Does it work all the time? Of course not. Is it more sporting than what we see in Europe and England? It depends on how you feel about very wealthy teams spending more than they make in pursuit of trophies. The disparity that creates has its own control, relegation sending struggling teams out of the league and making it another league’s problem.
A lot was made during yesterday’s Premier League title decider about how little City and Queens Park Rangers had in common. That’s not the story North American sports usually tell. Instead, it’s an anything can happen scenario that plays out across sports in any given game. That’s what the playoff systems help create, the reality that winning regularly over multiple months might not be enough.
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