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Single table v Conference - Why the playoffs are here to stay

A look into and rationalization of the conference and playoff format used by Major League Soccer as opposed to that of the single table format in other leagues around the world.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A constant debate between the European soccer-minded, and the American fan - the debate of "You're Americanizing soccer" vs "Playoffs are awesome". It clearly will always come down to the opinion of the fan or blogger writing about it. What matters more - being the winner of the season, or being the winner of the playoffs? The debate for single table or playoffs in concerns with Major League Soccer, as opposed to the rest of the world.

A quick history lesson of American sports origins (don't worry, it's a soccer blog, I won't focus on it too much) - The NFL, in those pre NFL days - the championship was first voted on by team owners. This, clearly, was foolish. From 1924 to 1932, it was given to the team that had the best winning percentage for the year - since not every team played each opponent, or even had the same amount of games. This makes sense, and is similar to what we see in the NCAA before Bowl distribution. In 1932 however, there was a tied percentage between Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans. The tiebreaker was an extra game after the regular season. There was much ado about this idea, and seeing that it was more reasonable to consider a champion under this format - the league was broken up into 2 conferences, and an extra game after the season was added to the conference winners (i.e. - season champions). If there was a tie, there was an added game for that conference to decide who goes to the final. In 1967, NFL having 16 teams and 2 conferences, divided into 4 divisions, and thus creating division champions in season, creating tiebreaker rules without a playoff - and forming what was the groundwork for the NFL playoffs that we know as of today.

Yea, interesting isn't it.

MLB playoffs are just as simple - when there was 1 league (National League) there were no playoffs. Whoever had the best record, won. With the creation of the American Association, they then had their respective champions of the season playing each other, and much trial and error occurred with the format of those games. 1903 saw the Modern Era World Series, which was primarily between the Pennant winners for each league (AL and NL) until 1969 when 2 rounds were added because of expansion - from 16 teams total to 20, to 1969's 24 - as well as divisions.

Playoffs in America - formed from regular season ties, unbalanced schedules, and multi-league situations where it is considered fair to have a final competition after the normal run of the season has occurred. Regional/Area divisions being created with expansion, adding to how playoffs are decided. Sort of a pattern forming, don't you think?

But soccer elsewhere - it's made up of multiple leagues in countries, and they are all single table - the champion is decided by whoever wins the season! We don't have the same format, therefore the league won't be respected.

Well, for starters, we're American - we won't ever be respected internationally. And in the case of single table format - yes, if you only follow 3 or 4 of the top leagues where the final decisions are decided by the table, but that is not the case in all leagues around the globe.

England leagues have in their tiebreaker format a playoff if the winner of the league is tied by points, goal difference, goals scored, and head to head W/L/D / goals. This, although it has never happened, is similar to how playoffs began with American Football, and is a game tiebreaker - where MLS tiebreaker rules consisted of a coin flip (assuming that is still in there).

In the lower divisions of Spain, the teams are broken up based upon region and a playoff decides who the regions' winners should be promoted the following season.

Liga MX - Mexico - follows a 2 season format (fall and spring) where at the end of each format, the top 8 teams go into an elimination playoff - paired up by ranking (1v8, 2v7) and plays as such throughout the tournament.

In Australia for sports, it is a standard for a league to have a playoff format, so their A-League - since it's inception in '06 - has one.

But how does this all relate to Major League Soccer?

Well - it proves that you don't have to imitate, or be another league from another country, or even adhere to standards within your own country if it isn't cost effective, or rational. As well, the possibilities in the future become endless if you follow what other American leagues have done.

With the unbalanced schedule - MLS created inter-conference play of 1 game each, and an additional game on top of home / away in-conference (with divisions established in reserve league). With NYCFC coming in 2015, Houston will be moved back to the Western Conference (you would assume so) and conferences will be 10v10. Don Garber's statement about wanting 4 additional teams by 2020 brings that total up to 24 teams in the league, would make that 12 in each conference.

This means 2 things could occur for the season format:

1) Format of 2 games within conference (22) and 12 out of conference (34 game season)
2) If divisions are established in the league, and established in regards to region, cost effectiveness, and rivalries - 3 divisions per conference of 4 teams each - 4 games per team in division (12), 2 games per conference (16), and 12 out of conference. Total games for the season = 40.

Or they could come up with some other format that isn't simple to think about. Possibilities are seemingly endless - especially if they then consider adding more teams. Who knows. I for one am okay with the unbalanced schedule for the league - which then requires a playoff to determine the "winner". The only problem is the constant rule changes here and there as the changes occur with expansion, and different qualifications. Sadly this cheapens the Supporter's Shield because playoffs replace the season as the "equal" decider of who is the champion, but that's the method of the beast. Overall, the format helps prevent outrageous costs of travel and increased interest in local rivalries, and if the division idea is created through expansion it can possibly bring in markets of previous MLS "failures" because of cost - i.e. the Florida market. More games specific to the regional area, more support, less of a hole in their pocket to fly out to LA, and then again to Seattle.

And if you don't realize why the cost of travel is a large issue for a league still in infancy / adolescence compared to other established leagues - let me sum up the area sizes:

United States of America -3.1 million square miles (not including Canada and Alaska). Population density - 100.8 people per sq mile
Europe - 3.9 million square miles. Population density - 188 per sq mile.
Spain - 195 thousand square miles. Population density - 240 per sq mile.
Germany - 138 thousand square miles. Population density - 583 per sq mile.
United Kingdom (including N. Ireland and Scotland) - 94 thousand square miles. Population density - 661.9 per sq mile

American teams have to travel more for just league play - yet alone for any championship formats. But all in all, what it comes down to is this: the game is the same, the countries are different, the league is different, and there is nothing wrong with not copying another league. Play off MLS, play off.