I love soccer. I can’t get enough of it. So this is always a bittersweet time of year. Domestic leagues are coming to an end. Cup competitions are finishing up. In fact, many of Europe’s top leagues had been settled for the past few weeks and lacked final-day drama. So in order to get my fix of intense, competitive league football, I turned my attention to Mexico and the Liga MX Liguilla playoffs.
And I fell in love.
Now let me start by saying this: I am NOT an MLS hater. In fact, I really enjoy MLS. I’m usually the one defending the league to others who refuse to “stoop” below the Premier League. However, from watching the Liguilla and diving into Mexican soccer like a kid into a pool on his first day of summer vacation, I realized MLS could be so much better if it was willing to take some advice from its neighbor to the south.
1. Relegation and Promotion
American soccer fans love to talk about this and MLS commissioner Don Garber has made it clear that he has no intention of instituting a system of relegation and promotion. However, Mexico has figured out a good compromise. Instead of two or three teams being relegated at the end of each season, as is common in most European leagues, Mexico only relegates one.
Liga MX uses some sort of equation taking results from the last three seasons to determine the relegated club. It seems like it involves a lot of math, and I hate math, so let’s ignore “how” they relegate a club, and just accept that one bad team is getting relegated each season. That team is replaced by the top side from Mexico’s second division. That part is pretty straightforward.
MLS needs to adopt this system because the threat of relegation needs to exist in order to make the league better. Don Garber continues to expand the league into more markets around the United States. At what point does the league become watered down? When is the league too big? Mexico’s formula for relegation does not punish a team for one bad season, but it does punish consistent losers, and that is a good thing.
2. The Season Format
Here is another issue that is holding MLS back from the rest of the world. The calendar just doesn’t make sense! I’m guessing that MLS thought playing from early spring to late fall was a good idea when the league was just starting out in the 90’s and there was a real fear that it wouldn’t last if it had to compete against the NFL and NBA everyday. But it’s been over 20 years now and the league is here to stay. Soccer markets have been cemented and the league’s attendance continues to rise.
It is time for MLS to consider moving to the season format used in Mexico and most of South America: an opening (apertura) tournament from August to December and a closing (clausura) tournament from January to May. Each tournament has its own champion and it would finally sync MLS with the FIFA calendar. That means no more playing league games during FIFA international breaks (!) and easier movement of players in the transfer window.
3. The Playoffs
The MLS playoffs are good, but not great. If these past few weeks taught me anything it’s that the Liga MX playoffs - the Liguilla - are GREAT.
There’s no Western Conference vs. Eastern Conference setup where you end up getting mediocre teams qualifying for the playoffs (see “watered down” and “too big” above). Instead, the top 8 teams make up the Liguilla and each round, including the final, is contested over two legs, home and away. MLS loves the idea of having a one-off final to act as their “Superbowl” but that is just not fair for one team to have their chance at a trophy only come as a true road game.
Liga MX, thank you for the past few weeks. They have been terrific and I enjoyed watching every minute. I just hope MLS was watching, too.