Uh-oh! The Single Table Idea Have Started to Move!
|Two days ago, Jack Bell of the New York Times reported that single table could be implemented in MLS next season:|
There is a 50-50 chance the league will do away with its two-conference format next season and go to a single set of standings when Toronto F.C. begins play as the 13th team. The top eight teams would qualify for the playoffs.
I say uh-oh because of the polarized reaction that's sure to come from the fans. Is this a good idea? The league plans to be at 16 teams by 2010. Presumably, that means a 14th team will join in 2008. So for 2007, there will be 13 teams. Keeping the two conference system where four teams make it from each would be unfair, because of the odd number. A team shouldn't get an advantage just because it happens to be in a certain region. The next thought is probably, why not just allow the top eight teams to make it regardless of conference? That's pretty fair, but if you're going to do that, then why have conferences in the first place? Which then leads to the single table. I have no inside information, but I'm betting that's the reasoning behind it.
Although, if the league does quickly go to 14 and then 16 teams, both even numbers, does a change even need to be made? I think so. At some point, you can't have huge conferences. The scheduling becomes harder; if MLS gets to 20 teams with two conferences, some teams might meet only once per year. So you can have two choices. You can split into three or four divisions, which just creates additional drama for no reason. Does it really mean anything to be a division champ? Are MLB's San Diego Padres looking back fondly on last year's 82-80 team? It lets more crappy teams into the playoffs, and usually unfairly helps them with higher seeds (see New England Revolution, 2002).
I'm in favor of single table, not just because of the fairness issue but because it gets MLS one step closer to being like the Premiership and other top European leagues. I think that's the ultimate goal that many hardcore fans would like to see. Not just the quality of play and the fans, but the format also. Hate to bring up the dreaded promotion and relegation, but it would be incredibly exciting. Don't say it can't be done with franchises either, just look at the J-League in Japan. They already have a 12 team second division despite only being around since 1992. I think once the league gets to 20 teams, there can be some real talk about it. Just hold off on expansion for a few years, and add several teams at once (possibly by including some lower league clubs like Rochester who probably still won't be in MLS by then, similar to how the J-League did it). Expansion teams can start in the second division.
What does this announcement have to do with relegation? Once MLS switches to single table, it's hard to see them switching back. As fans become more soccer savvy (and savvy fans and owners get more into MLS), the pressure will start building to eliminate all the Americanized things about the sport. We've already seen it with the 1996 uniforms, shootout, overtime, and the complaints over announcing at the World Cup. We all know what the long term goals of the league should be, and this is a small step in getting there.
Single table with playoffs is still good, while we wait for the future. Did you know that the only reason MLS stuck with eight teams in playoffs after contraction is because of Lamar Hunt? Can't remember where I read it, but I believe there would be only six playoff teams if not for him. He's also the guy who wanted to add two more playoff teams in the NFL this past offseason. He's done so much for soccer, but I think MLS would be better off without him now. That's another post though. Anyway, the one final point I want to make is that if MLS has a single table with playoffs, only seven teams should make the playoffs instead of eight. This gives a real reward for finishing first: a quarterfinal bye. Seems like a no-brainer. So forget all the future talk, if they do go ahead with it, that's the one key thing they need to implement.
(link for those of you who don't get the title of this post)