There are a lot of ways to win a soccer match. You can score in the first 30 seconds and hold on for the next 90 minutes, or you can knock in the winning goal in the last injury-time minutes, as the Portland Timbers did against the Los Angeles Galaxy this past weekend (late goals are particularly delicious). You can cream your opponents with a seven goal margin or you can win by a single goal that should’ve been disallowed. Any which way you do it, you earn the same three points on the league table. This is a cliché, but when you look back on a long string of wins, it’s the results that sink in first, and the style in which they were achieved second.
The way wins are tallied by the MLS inspire an ongoing and well-worn argument: the league’s playoff format is unique internationally and a point of contest. There’s a domestic camp that says this structure increases excitement and spectacle at the end of the season and makes the sport more palatable to Americans who, accustomed to playoffs in other sports, might dislike selecting champions straight from the points table. The playoffs have also contributed to the diversity of winners in the league; already nine different MLS teams have claimed the trophy. This stands in pleasant contrast to the dynasties of many European leagues where the title is realistically only available to the two or three best (and generally richest) teams. The opposing camp feels that the playoffs overemphasize randomness, do a disservice to the better teams, and don’t serve as a compelling measure of the best team of the season. It’s a question of results and style writ large, and the way the league interprets a win changes, fundamentally, some aspects of how we experience the game at large.
The Timbers’ phenomenal unbeaten streak was ended a week ago by the Columbus Crew. While it’s never fun to lose, and never great to break a victorious record-setting roll, the result didn’t do anything, really, to dent the Timbers’ chance of achieving the playoffs (the top 5 teams from each division enter). When the New York Red Bulls trounced Montreal 4-0 last week, Red Bulls coach Mike Petke had this to say:
"We sit on top of the conference right now and that's nice, but it means absolutely nothing. This is such a streaky league that anything can happen from here on. It's just the way the league is built. It's an absolute roller coaster."
This sort of perspective simply doesn’t exist for the top teams in, for example, the English Premier League. Since the league title is awarded to the team with the most points on the table, every win matters in a very pointed way, particularly wins against the teams competing for the top spots: the three points your team claims are three you’ve guaranteed your opponents will never have. It’s simple, brutal arithmetic.
Not to diminish Portland’s euphoric win over LA, but the underlying structure is still in play. If the win had meant the Timbers were marginally closer to winning the title while the Galaxy were suddenly, quantifiably, less likely to, would the celebrations have been even greater? Hard to say, and maybe a quibble, but for passionate fans these season-long calculations can be a matter of extreme obsession. Whether this obsession is actually enjoyable is a separate, possibly existential question. The intense anxiety a table-based championship inspires is linked to the other main difference between the MLS and most of its international counterparts: its lack of a promotion and relegation system. But that’s another story for another time.
In the meantime, I think it’s worth pondering how the larger architecture of the league influences our experience of individual games. Is it a relief that every game, season-long, isn’t part of a title trudge? Does this allow us room to enjoy the lesser moments of the game? Everything doesn’t drip with a sense of predestination: the playoffs always shake the situation up. And why would we need to be similar to the English or the German or the Spanish leagues?
Or are we selling ourselves short? Isn’t the best measure of a champion the most straightforward? They win the most. What is a season but a 34-game-long race to this point? Why complicate it with a playoff apparatus? I don’t imagine the questions will stop anytime soon, but then again why would we want them to stop? They're a part of the game.