Hello and welcome to another edition of the Los Angeles Times weekly soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
OK, that’s enough of the niceties because we’re going to start this week with one of the most contentious issues in American soccer. And no I’m not talking about the 13 months it has taken to find a U.S. men’s coach, a national nightmare that could end this week when, if expected, Gregg Berhalter is finally given the job.
I’m referring instead to promotion and relegation. You think there’s a chasm separating Pelosi Democrats and Trump Republicans? They’re kindred spirits compared with people on opposite sides of the pro/reg argument.
Basically, promotion and relegation, which is used in major soccer leagues around the globe, calls for the bottom three teams in a country’s top-tier league to be relegated to the second division at the end of the season while the top three second-division teams are promoted. The idea is to keep teams at the bottom of the table, long eliminated from title consideration, playing hard to the end of the season to avoid demotion.
And it’s a practice that has worked well everywhere — yet one that will probably never be adopted here. And the reason is simple: It doesn’t make financial sense.
Major League Soccer, the top-tier league in the U.S., depends heavily on expansion fees to pay its bills. Cincinnati and Nashville, two of the newest MLS teams, paid $150 million each for the right to join the league. That’s 15 times what Real Salt Lake paid for the same privilege 14 years ago.
And smart businesspeople aren’t going to pay those kinds of fees if there’s a chance they’ll be dropped to the second-division United Soccer League after one season, a fate that would have befallen four of the last nine MLS expansion teams under such a system.
MLS games are played in NFL stadiums before crowds the league said averaged nearly 25,000 a game this season. One USL team plays its home games at a high school stadium and others play in minor league baseball parks. Attendance leaguewide averaged 5,156.
That’s no knock on the USL, a growing, competitive league that is increasingly attracting talented players. But it has its own distinct niche a level below MLS. No one is going to pay $150 million to join a league and spend part of their season sharing a stadium with the Classen School of Advanced Studies in Oklahoma City.
Remember MLS is just 23 years old and the USL has been a Division II league for just two seasons. In many European countries, the top domestic leagues have been around more than a century and promotion and relegation took root long before there were million-dollar contracts, lucrative TV deals and six-figure expansion fees.
So MLS came up with a better solution, one more familiar to a North American audience, by adopting a postseason playoff system.
And that has done more to add sustained drama and excitement to the game than promotion and relegation.
This fall, more than half the league’s 23 teams entered the final two weeks of the regular season with a chance to win the MLS Cup. In 2015 and 2016, three of the four teams that reached the MLS Cup final entered the playoffs as wild-card teams.
One of them, the 2016 Seattle Sounders, had 20 points after 20 games and was buried in the conference standings before rallying to earn a playoff berth, then run the table in the postseason.
This season in Spain, Leganes is averaging a point a game through 13 matches, leaving it just above the relegation zone. You think that team would rather play for a chance at a title rather than another season in La Liga?
The playoff system has served MLS and its supporters in other ways, too. In the last 10 seasons only one team, the Galaxy, has won the MLS Cup more than once. Twelve teams have played in the title game.
Compare that to Spain, Germany and Italy, each of which have had just three teams win championships in the last decade. Juventus has won the last seven Serie A titles, Bayern Munich has won six straight Bundesliga crowns and Paris Saint-Germain has won five of the last six in France.
If you don’t support those teams, you start each season hoping for second place.
The two teams that reach the MLS Cup final this season will be decided Thursday, when Portland and Sporting Kansas City play for the Western Conference title in Kansas City, Kan., and Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls play for the Eastern Conference championship in Harrison, N.J. The two-leg playoff will be decided on aggregate goals and the Western Conference series is scoreless after one game while Atlanta leads the top-seeded Red Bulls, 3-0, in the East.
This could be the final year the league MLS plays under the current postseason format, though. At issue are the October and November FIFA international breaks that have typically disrupted the end of the regular season and start of the postseason.
The MLS board of governors will vote next month on a proposal that would add two midweek games to each team’s schedule, allowing the regular season to end Oct. 6. The league would then pause for the international break and begin the postseason in mid-October, featuring all single-elimination games instead of the current two-leg playoffs for the conference semifinals and finals.
That would allow the MLS Cup to be played in mid-November, before the final FIFA break of the year. The new format — the third change since 2014 — would put a premium on home-field advantage, but it would also mean a lower-seeded team could win its way to the championship game without playing a postseason match before its own supporters.
The addition of teams in warm-weather cities like Nashville and Miami in coming seasons could lead MLS to push the start of the regular season from March to February, cutting the long offseason and making the rest of the schedule more manageable.
According to Miki Turner of the Athletic, there has also been talk of increasing the playoff field from six to seven teams in each conference in anticipation of future expansion to 28 teams. If the expanded playoff takes effect next season with the league at 24 teams, more than half of them would make the postseason.
If that format had been in place this year, Montreal, with 16 losses, would have advanced. Rewarding mediocrity shouldn’t be what the playoffs are about.
Changing of the guard?
Speaking of the dominance of Europe’s superclubs, two of them are in trouble just a third of the way into their seasons.
In the Bundesliga, the holiday break is still a month away but if Bayern Munich doesn’t find some momentum under its Christmas tree, Germany could have a new champion next spring for the first time since 2012.
When Dodi Lukebakio completed a hat trick three minutes into stoppage time last Saturday, it earned Dusseldorf a 3-3 draw that dropped Munich nine points behind unbeaten Borussia Dortmund after 12 games. That’s just the start of the bad news, though. The six-time defending league champions haven’t won a Bundesliga game in a month and have won just twice in five tries at Allianz Arena, its once-impenetrable fortress.
Fifth in the table, Munich is in danger of missing the Champions League for the first time in more than a decade
Munich’s rapid decline is reminiscent of what happened to the German national team in last summer’s World Cup. The defending champions arrived in Russia among the favorites, only to be eliminated in group play.
And Spanish champion Barcelona, which lost just once in La Liga last season, has already lost twice this season and trails Sevilla by a point in the table after 13 matches. Of greater concern are the injuries that are beginning to pile up. In last week’s draw with Atletico Madrid, the two-time defending Spanish champions lost midfielder Rafinha for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee and Sergi Roberto to a left hamstring injury that will sideline him at least three weeks.
Roberto, who can play in the midfield or on the back line, missed a month earlier this season to pulled muscle in his right thigh, joining nine others — including Lionel Messi — who have missed time to injury this season.
Then there’s Manchester United, which won 25 games and finished second in the Premier League last season. The Reds have a record 13 EPL trophies, but the last one came in 2013 and that drought won’t end this season: United is seventh in the table, 14 points back of crosstown rival Manchester City and has a negative goal differential after 13 games.
That’s not what the team’s American bosses expected when they gave coach Jose Mourinho $450 million to spend on players over the last two years.
He can barely walk and his players say they can’t always understand him, yet Diego Maradona has managed to lead the Dorados of Sinaloa into a two-leg playoff with Atletico San Luis to decide the winner of Mexico’s second-tier Liga de Ascenso.
When Maradona took over in mid September, Sinaloa was winless. Under the former Argentine legend, the Dorados have gone 8-3-2 in all competition. Their playoff series begins Thursday in Culiacan and ends Sunday in San Luis Potosi.
Until next time