Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest day on the American sporting calendar, and arguably the biggest on the sporting calendar of the world. The game commands a level of interest that every other league aspires to, including Major League Soccer, which from the start has held a playoff for its MLS Cup championship and ignored the traditional soccer model in which the league winner is the team with the best regular-season record.
MLS includes too many teams in its playoffs, but it’s undeniable that the MLS Cup gives American soccer its own version of the Super Bowl. The game serves as the culmination and celebration of the season as a whole. Playoffs have been suggested for other leagues, to get that exciting final-game vibe.
But few have implemented them, amid concern that it would kill the fairness of the current system.
England’s version of this showpiece is the FA Cup Final, traditionally the final game of the English season. As the Premier League has grown in importance, though, the single-elimination, take-all-comers FA Cup seems more and more quaint and less like English soccer’s biggest game.
In the past few years, the final game of the second-division promotion playoffs, which allow the winning team an entry into the vast riches of the Premier League, has drawn almost as much attention as the FA Cup Final. If the Premier League had a similar title-deciding game, it likely would be the biggest single event in the world.
That said, it’s hard to argue for playoffs in a league in which every team plays every other team twice — once home, once away. This setup does have the advantage of throwing up a playoff-type atmosphere almost every week. Chelsea and Arsenal, playing Saturday morning, will garner huge attention precisely because there is no end-of-season playoff. Rather than serve as a battle for playoff seeding, games like this have the potential to decide the title at the end of the year.
Ultimately, this should take precedent over any hope for a Super Bowl-style, end-of-season extravaganza. Leagues such as the Premier League reward excellence over the entire year, not just one end-of-season burst. Leicester City lost twice to second-place Arsenal in 2015-16, but was far better than Arsenal over the other 36 matches of the season. Surely that performance is more deserving of a league title.
In MLS, though, a playoff will continue to make sense. The 22-team league’s unwieldy size and far-flung geographic distribution mean that a balanced schedule is a pipe dream. The league’s regular season never will be fair. The playoffs, though they should be much smaller, still serve as a Super Bowl-style centerpiece for fans (and broadcasters and advertisers) to focus on. Shrink them, but keep them. And someday, perhaps MLS Cup Sunday will start to feel a little more like Super Bowl Sunday.
• The National Women’s Soccer League finally has its first real-deal national TV contract. The league and A&E Networks announced that Lifetime will carry an NWSL game of the week at 4 p.m. every Saturday. That’s much better than the league’s old deal, which placed a handful of random games onto FOX Sports. It calls to mind the WNBA, which also once had games on Lifetime.
• Of the 12 cities that submitted MLS expansion bids, the league has to be the most excited about those from San Diego and St. Louis, both of which just lost their NFL teams to Los Angeles. Both cities have a long history with soccer and would fill a hole on their community sports landscape. With one or two exceptions, though, all the bids seem decent. Makes you wonder if MLS is headed for 32 or more teams.
• Minnesota United has a long way to go in the social media arena. Local soccer writer Bruce McGuire looked up the follower counts for every MLS team and found that the Loons have, by far, the smallest Twitter following. They rank 20th of 22 in Facebook followers.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Arsenal at Chelsea, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. After Arsenal’s loss at home to lowly Watford on Tuesday, even the most optimistic of its fans would have to admit that the Premier League title appears to be Chelsea’s to lose. This game may well be the last chance for any club to haul the Blues back to the pack, even a little. A Chelsea victory might just about wrap things up.
Bundesliga: RB Leipzig at Borussia Dortmund, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Leipzig just won’t go away at the top of the German standings. The upstarts defeated previously unbeaten Hoffenheim last week, and are still just three points from Bayern Munich. A trip to Borussia Dortmund is never easy, even if the home team isn’t playing well this year. Can Leipzig keep up its glorious run?
Premier League: Manchester United at Leicester City, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Don’t look now, but league defending champion Leicester City is in very real danger of being relegated. Last season, a visit from Manchester United would have been met confidently by the Foxes. This season, the squad is in disarray. Leicester desperately needs a result to get pointed in the right direction.
Africa Cup of Nations Final: Egypt vs. Cameroon, 1 p.m. Sunday, beIN. Plenty of devoted soccer fans swear by the entertainment provided this oft-forgotten continental championship. Egypt won three consecutive titles from 2006-10, but hasn’t qualified since. Cameroon had eight players decline to come to the tournament, but is in position for a shock tournament victory.