Home England Bringing MLS-style playoffs to Europe? Wouldn’t that be fun!

Bringing MLS-style playoffs to Europe? Wouldn’t that be fun!


Over the years, in various publications, I’ve had fun with reversing the criticisms often tossed at North America’s soccer makeup.

What does that mean? If you’re a follower of MLS or NASL or USL or university-level soccer in North America, you’ve heard the criticisms of the playoff structures. You’ve been told that deciding champions through straight tables is far better than Cup finals. You’ve been told that allowing multiple teams into the playoffs rewards mediocrity. And you’ve been told that the table system is sooooo much better, even while you watch a late-season meaningless match between eighth- and ninth-place EPL teams, or see Barcelona make pretty well half of the La Liga season meaningless (same with Celtic in Scotland) because Messi and co. have taken such a large lead over the rest of the field.

So, I offer this response: Wouldn’t European leagues be so much better with playoffs? Yes, the tongue is in the cheek. It’s the holiday season and this is written in the spirit of fun, not malice. But, instead of withering over your pint when you are told North American leagues just aren’t legitimate with their playoffs and championship games, respond with this: Having a playoff system is far more preferable than watching Barcelona and Celtic decide their leagues with months to go in their seasons. A league that’s wrapped up with months to go is, well, well, well…


That’s the word. Boring. As many goals as Barca can score, it’s not really “entertainment” to watch it win 7-0 over a last-place La Liga team so it can pile on to its already large lead at the top of the table.

So, once again, to provide a counterpoint, I present the scenario: What if the EPL had playoffs? For a legitimate point of reference, I’ve introduced the MLS playoff system to the Premiership, breaking the 20 teams into two “divisions” of 10, based as close as can be to a North-South split in England and Wales (can’t forget Swansea, you know).

Because geographical splits in sport tend not to be based solely on, well, geography, we’ve preserved the Birmingham-area rivalry by keeping Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion together in the North Division, while Norwich is sent to the South. (Even though MLS found a way to split its two Texas teams, which is weird).

So, based on the standings as of Friday, if we applied an MLS format to the EPL, the standings (and, ahem, playoff races) would read as follows:

Manchester United 46
Manchester City 39
Everton 33
WBA 33
Stoke 28

Liverpool 25
Sunderland 22
Newcastle 20
Aston Villa 18
Wigan 15

Chelsea 35
Tottenham 33
Arsenal 30
Swansea 25
Norwich 25

West Ham 23
Fulham 21
Southampton 16
Reading 10
QPR 10

If the season ended today? In the North, we’d have a midweek wild-card match between Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns; the winner of that game would host the first leg of a home-and-away series with Manchester United. Manchester City would face Everton in the other Northern playoff.

In the South, Swansea, because of more goals scored (that’s the MLS tiebreaker), would host Norwich City in the South wild-card match-up. The winner of that match would face Chelsea in one South semi, while a North London derby between Tottenham and Arsenal would be the other South playoff match-up.

But the season doesn’t end today. In fact, we’re only halfway through. The real difference to the English game would be the fact that, outside of Southern basement dwellers Reading and Queens Park Rangers, the non-playoff teams would all still have something to play for outside of relegation.

Manchester United would be in the driver’s seat to have home-field advantage if it won the Northern Division and made it to the EPL final. If Chelsea won the South, the only way it would host the final is if both United and Man City got knocked out in the North.

Sure, purists will turn up their noses at any suggestions of bringing North American-style playoffs to European soccer. But, remember that Americans have a massive, growing influence in England, especially. The purse strings at Arsenal, Manchester United, Aston Villa and Liverpool are controlled by Americans.

But here’s another wrench in the works for the purist, if we were to make a new, reborn EPL, a 38-game schedule would likely be too long to squeeze in. The schedule would be shortened by, ahem, four games, to make way in the calendar for playoff rounds, just like MLS. So, EPL would need to adopt an unbalanced schedule, with more London derbies in the Southern Division. There would be three Manchester derbies and three Merseyside derbies in the North. And there would only be one United/Arsenal or one United/Chelsea match a season.

There’s no doubt that the table system has given us some fantastic finishes. We could argue what was better: Manchester City’s last-day fightback against QPR that gave it the 2012 title, or the 1989 finale, which saw Arsenal steal the title by winning by two goals on the last day at Liverpool? And there was 1995 when Blackburn, despite losing on the final day to Liverpool, won the title because Manchester United couldn’t take maximum points from West Ham.

But, in many too many seasons, the title has been decided before the final weekend, which is then reserved for laps of honour and champagne celebrations.

The mid-table teams just play out the string, too good for a relegation battle but nowhere near good enough to be in contention for European places. Saturdays come and go, more about ritual than ambition. With a playoff system, those mid-table matches would have meaning.

In a playoff system, United and Arsenal, still alive in the Champions League, could more easily rotate their squads in anticipation of ties with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, respectively. They could more easily afford to drop points in the league.

And, most importantly, these paragraphs offer food for thought to the many so-called purists who believe that North American soccer must take on the characteristics of the European leagues to be legitimate. If it is OK for that section of fans to demand that North America change its soccer ways, I encourage North American fans to return with this: Wouldn’t an EPL playoffs be amazing? Really? Really!

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One Comment

  1. russellsteap0t

    December 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Get rid of the League Cup and there’d be plenty of room in the schedule for a playoff.

    I presume that the two northern and two southern finalists would qualify for the Champions League?

    As for the purity of a strictly table-based system, it seems that the three lower divisions in England use a play-off system to decide who gets promoted. What I would like to see is two up and two down, with the third-last in the upper division going into a playoff with the third, fourth and fifth team in the lower to decide the third team to move up (or stay). That would also increase excitement in the relegation zone. In your North/South split, I guess that QPR and Wigan would go down, Reading and Villa would play with the winner staying up and the loser going into a play-off with the 3rd, 4th and 5th teams from the Championship.

    With a North/South split, you could also add Rangers and Celtic into the mix, too. They’d have to used the Scottish FA Cup to decide on the Champions League spot (Losing finalist gets Europa League spot? There’s something to play for!). Or would Scotland get two spots in the BPL, with the Scottish FA Cup Finalists getting in? The two scottish teams in the BPL would then play the top two of the Scottish League, with the two finalists moving into the BPL? Not sure what you’d do if one (or both) of the Scottish teams ended up in in the last two spots in the BPL/North.

    In many ways, you’re right…if you want the most meaningful games to be played at the end of the season, you could have some great games played around relegation battles (and a possible reprieve), four teams in Scotland playing for BPL places and Champions/Europa League spots, and ten teams in England fighting for 4 Champions League places as well as the Premier League trophy.

    In England, the final would probably be played at Wembley.

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